Posts tagged ‘Duke of Monmouth’

06/12/2013

Haw, haw

conway1I’ve been reading Alison Conway’s The Protestant Whore: Courtesan Narrative And Religious Controversy In England, 1680-1750. The book’s title comes, of course, from the famous anecdote about Nell Gwyn, which tells how she placated an angry mob that attacked her coach in mistake for that of Louise de Kéroualle by calling out, “Good people, pray be civil – I am the Protestant whore!” (We were given a version of this incident in The Power And The Passion.)

Conway’s study traces the history of “courtesan narrative” from the Restoration to the second Jacobite Rebellion, showing the many ways in which the word “whore” was employed in political and religious discourse in relation to the Stuarts. Conway believes the Nell Gwyn story to be apocryphal, because while it was widely repeated no-one ever provided (or has since identified) an original source for it. However, she argues, if the story is fictional, the disclaimer “Protestant” carries even greater weight.

The dismay and anger felt in the face of Charles’ perceived neglect of his duties while he dallied with his mistresses, or worse, the possibility of “petticoat government”, provoked an outpouring of writing that was deeply critical of the amorous monarch, and often frankly obscene. Perhaps the most striking feature of this particular form of literature is the almost invariable distinction drawn between Nell Gwyn and the other mistresses: there is full appreciation of the fact that she was the only one who was neither French nor Catholic; not just a whore, but a Protestant whore. As a consequence the criticism of her is rarely worse than unkind, and in fact most of what looks like an attack upon her is in reality an attack upon Charles.

Take, for example, this extract from Robert Lacy’s 1677 poem, Satyr (the contemporary spelling of “satire”, albeit with an entirely appropriate secondary meaning in context), a lengthy diatribe on Charles’ neglect of his duties and his prodigal sexuality, on which Lacy blames his failure to produce a legitimate heir:

    How poorly squander’st thou thy seed away,
    Which should get Kings for nations to obey;
    But thou, poor Prince, so uselessly hast sown it,
    That the Creation is ashamed to own it:
    Witness the Royal Line sprung from the Belly
    Of the Anointed Princess, Madam Nelly…

In sharp contrast, the attacks made upon the other mistresses are direct and deeply hostile – particularly those aimed at Louise de Kéroualle, who was not only French and Catholic, but widely believed to be a spy in the pay of Louis XIV. The following is from The Whore Of Babylon, a (not surprisingly) unattributed work from 1678:

    You treach’rous Whore of France, may Rabble’s rage
    Seize thee, & not till thou’rt destroy’d aswage.
    The People’s Cross, misfortune, constant Pest,
    The Milstone whelm’d upon this Nation’s breast;
    Brittain’s impairer of her honour & Fame,
    The Festring Soar of Majesty, the Shame
    Of English Councils; the Crowns costly load,
    And Prince’s thriving Infamy abroad;
    The Commons hater, & false France’s friend.
    Lord, from this Basilisk Loyalty defend!
    Permit a change, our ruins to confront,
    Let us be govern’d by an English C–t;
    The kingdom can’t by whoring suffer want
    If princes swives concubines that’s Protestant.

Charming. And yet by no means the nastiest of the anti-de Kéroualle works.

One of the strangest aspects of this period was the emergence in the literature of a wildly idealised Nell Gwyn, who was portrayed of standing up for England’s rights and liberties while Charles was falling down on the job, and who became, perversely enough, a symbol of monarchical and religious loyalty. There is a whole subset of writing that has Nell telling off the other mistresses, usually Louise de Kéroualle, sometimes Barbara de Villiers, in conversations that are really between England and France, Protestantism and Catholicism. And beyond that, there is at least one example of Nell telling off Monmouth, berating him for his disloyalty and ingratitude.

Anyway—

It was my original intention to write a full review of The Protestant Whore, but circumstances have intervened: I have a ‘community borrower’ card at an academic library, one of the conditions of which is that if anyone attached to the university wants a book I have on loan, I have to return it regardless of loan date. So perhaps I’ll return to it at a later date, when my journey meets up with the later subject matter of the book, which includes chapters on Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (though I don’t think I need to say any more on that subject!), the literature dealing with the relationship between Queen Anne and her “favourites”, Sarah Churchill and Mrs Masham, Defoe’s Roxana, and finally Clarissa and Tom Jones. I may say that it warmed my heart to find Alison Conway including Tom Jones in her list of Protestant whores.

Otherwise, I’m not entirely sure that Conway has done me any favours, inasmuch as she has me reconsidering my intention  to skip over the rest of the romans à clef that appeared in the post-James era. I’ve been puzzled by the fact that this period saw yet another set of attacks on Louise de Kéroualle, who by this time, having had much of the property bestowed upon her by Charles confiscated, had returned to France. However, I’ve found a source (emphasis on found: do think I can find it again?) which contends that, in the wake of the Rye House Plot, the formerly easy-going Charles finally did crack down on the print market, and that a great deal of what was written in 1683 and 1684 consequently went unpublished, finally seeing the light of day across 1689 / 1690, when it sat comfortably amongst the various pro-Williamite writing and served to remind people what England had rid itself of, even if the specifics were no longer so relevant.

So I’m currently resigning myself to taking a look at The Court Secret by Peter Belon (who we have met here before, as one of the translators of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise), and The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary, by that most prolific of authors, “Anonymous”, both of which are Louise de Kéroualle-focused romans à clef. The latter, in addition, is suggested to have had some influence upon the writings of Delariviere Manley, so it may assume greater importance going forward.

If  I ever get to go forward.

And indeed, James is still clutching at my skirts with exasperating tenacity. (If only he’d held onto the throne that tightly – !) Recently, for instance, I randomly picked up Alicia Deane, by the Australian writer E. V. Timms, only to discover that it is an historical novel dealing with characters caught up in the consequences of the Monmouth Rebellion. The central romantic conflict is between the eponymous heroine, who is a passionate believer in Monmouth (not too bright, in other words), and her would-be lover, who is anti-James, but anti-Monmouth too, remarking presciently that, “‘Tis not Monmouth Englishmen want—’tis William of Orange who be, with Mary his Queen, the King and Queen for us.”

The novel opens in the immediate aftermath of Charles’ death, when England is adjusting itself to James:

The glittering palace of Whitehall was now a house of gloom; no merry, uncaring, pleasure-loving monarch now filled its halls, rooms, and galleries with the laughter of licence and the flippant freedom of unrestrained sensuality. Charles was dead, and dead also was the love, the life, and the laughter that he and his brilliant court had made synonymous with the name of Whitehall. James was King, and over London the dark clouds of distrust and suspicion  were already casting their sable shadows. James! James the stern, the gloomy, the bigot, the cruel! The man whose heart was stony ground, and whose lips were strangers to laughter.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guy. Almost.

And in fact, I did once feel sorry for him, not while reading this novel (in which his relationship with George Jeffreys is given full weight), but when I stumbled over the following in my internet wanderings. And since I started this post with a probably-apocryphal anecdote, it seems appropriate to close with another one.

Charles, or so the story goes, was in the habit of going for walks in St James’s Park with what his retinue considered grossly inadequate protection, until James was moved to remonstrate with him for placing himself in danger.

To which Charles responded:

“No man in England will raise a hand to me as long as you are my heir.”

nellgwyn1b

Madam Nelly, by Sir Peter Lely

Advertisements
11/08/2013

The Amours Of Messalina

amoursofmessalina1…early the next Morning she receives the glad Tidings that a Man Child was born, which with all speed was convey’d to the Dormitory adjoining to her Bed-Chamber, in the same reeking Circumstances it was Born in, and having before taken care for the conducting of it to the Queens Bed, the Alarm is given at Alba Regalis that the Queen was in Labour… Now the pretended Prince being Born the Pagans of Albion began their Jubilee, Laroon Governor of Iberia began to double the persecution of the Christians there, Polydorus by a strict Alliance and LEAGUE with Lycogenes, thinks of nothing but a Universal Monarchy, Lycogenes doubles the Oppressions of his Christian Subjects, Messalina boasts of the downfall of Heresie, and a perpetual Regency, during her Life: The poor Christians, especially the Albionites, though something apprehensive of the Consequences of this Intrigue, were yet by their constant Remarques of all Transactions since the Report of Messalina’s Conception sufficiently satisfied of the fallacy and cheat, and resolv’d on measures which they doubted not would in a little time unravel the whole Mystery.

The political writing that had been so sternly suppressed under James II came roaring back with a vengeance following the Glorious Revolution. The public stance was that the removal of James was right and proper, but a need for justification showed itself in an explosion of revisionist histories published early in 1689, as well as in the return of the roman à clef.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this school of writing is how swiftly James became irrelevant once the idea of the “sham prince” had taken hold. Feared as a monarch, in the political writings of mid-1688 onwards he appears variously as a cuckold, a buffoon, and an object of pity. The kinder versions of events present him as tragically misguided, led astray by the wicked machinations of the Pope, Louis XIV and/or his own wife. And as James recedes in these writings, Mary of Modena takes centre-stage.

The virulence of some of the attacks made upon Mary at this time make for uncomfortable reading—particularly in light of the fact that the grounds of those attacks were pure invention, as the people making them were well aware. The invention of the sham prince not only allowed, but demanded, a retconning of events that turned Mary into a dangerous enemy willing to do anything to bring England to its knees under the dual yokes of France and Catholicism. Nevertheless, in these writings her alleged religious and political conspiracies almost invariably take a backseat to lurid imaginings of her sexual misconduct.

Early in 1689 was published a roman à clef that is typical of the kinds of attacks made upon the departed royals at the time, yet different in tone and execution from most of its brethren. As tends to be the case with this branch of writing, the origins of The Amours Of Messalina are somewhat murky. Though presented as by “a Woman of Quality, a late Confident of Queen Messalina”, it is believed to be the work of an Italian, Gregorio Leti, a Milanese historian who converted to Protestantism and became known for his anti-Catholic, and in particular anti-papal, views; his biography of Pope Sixtus V (who was largely responsible for shaping Catholic thinking on contraception and abortion) is considered inaccurate and scurrilous. Leti spent some time at the courts of both France and England, publishing the first biography of Elizabeth I during the latter period. However, in 1680 he managed to offend Charles II with his satirical publication Il Teatro Britannico and fled to Amsterdam, where he spent the rest of his life.

Amsterdam, as we have seen before, was the origin of many notorious publications of this era. It was also the centre for translated works that were from there dispersed across Europe, which made it particularly useful for those wishing to disguise the true origins of a particular work. Thus the English-language version of The Amours Of Messalina asserts that it was translated from the French, while the French-language version has it as translated from English.

(Whichever language it was first written in, the most outstanding feature of The Amours Of Messalina is its run-on sentences, which are as extreme as anything I’ve come across. See, for a typical example, the first quotation below.)

I have mentioned the peculiar tone of The Amours Of Messalina, which is easier to understand once the document’s authorship is considered. While it unblushingly asserts the truth of the “sham prince” accusations, and while it describes in detail the alleged sexual intrigue of Mary of Modena with Ferdinanda d’Adda, the papal nuncio, the whole story is presented from the perspective of Mary and her courtiers. As such, the imposition of a false Prince of Wales is treated as reasonable and, indeed, the only thing to be done under the circumstances. The villain here is not Mary, but the Pope (or “Boanerges the High Priest”, as he is called) and his minions, particularly the “Jebusites”. Mary, being Catholic, simply doesn’t know any better. The text deplores her influence upon James, but does not blame her.

For the most part the disguises worn by the characters in The Amours Of Messalina are exceedingly transparent. Albion (England) is peaceful and prosperous under Brotomandes (Charles II), but trouble starts when he dies and is succeeded by his brother, Lycogenes (James II), who was once a brave and noble prince, but is now nothing more than a tool in the hands of Boanerges and Polydorus, King of Gothland (Louis XIV). His marriage to Messalina is the beginning of the end: she has been sent to England on a mission to re-establish once and for all the Pagan religion (Catholicism), and to extirpate, along with all of its followers if necessary, the Christian faith (Protestantism):

He at last dying, without lawful issue, Lycogenes the Second, his only Brother, succeeded, a Prince who in his Youth and Adversity gave so signal proofs of his Virtue and Gallantry, that he render’d himself the Admiration of Foreign Countries, and the Delight and Love of his own, but (I know not by what unhappy Counsels thereunto incited) after his coming to the Crown of Albion, he committed so many Irregularities against even the Peace and Safety of his own People, that they were obliged to call in Anaximander, Prince of the Low Lands, to their assistance to defend their Lives, which they affirm’d Lycogenes had expos’d and sold to Polydorus King of the Gaules, and to recover their Rights and Liberties which, they say, their King had encroach’d upon and taken from them: Lycogenes had by his first Wife (who was Daughter to a Noble Peer of Albion) two lovely Princesses to his Daughters, the Eldest called Artemisia, Married to Anaximander, the other Philadelphia, Married to Polycrates the Northern Prince. His second Wife was Messalina, Daughter of a Huge Prince in Italy, and nearly related to Boanerges the High-Priest, a Lady sent by Heaven to determine the Fate of Poor Lycogenes, and to ruine the growing greatness of the Pagan Interest in the Kingdom of Albion.

It is, of course, true that the Pope persuaded Mary to accept James’s proposal of marriage. Then a devout fifteen-year-old, Mary wanted only to enter a convent, and recoiled from the thought of marriage in general, and the forty-year-old James in particular, but was finally convinced that her true duty was to assist with the re-establishment of Catholicism in England.

The passage quoted above comes at the outset of The Amours Of Messalina. After presenting this overview, the text then goes on to explain in detail how “Messalina” went about determining the fate of her husband and her religion. Note the use of the expression “Poor Lycogenes”: this is the attitude of the entire document, and indeed almost every reference to Lycogenes comes qualified with a pitying “Poor”.

While, as I say, most of the disguises in The Amours Of Messalina are easily seen through, I confess that I was deeply confused by the identities of two of Messalina’s co-conspirators, “Count Davila” and “Father Pedro”. In this I was somewhat led astray by our previous dip into the murky waters of political propagandising, The Sham Prince Expos’d. As we have discussed before, the attacks on James and Mary at this time were two-pronged, offering up the mutually exclusive yet equally damaging visions of the new Prince of Wales being either the result of Mary’s infidelity, or not actually Mary’s child at all, but a substitute. For those propagandists who favoured the first alternative, the overwhelming favourite for the role of Mary’s lover was – of course – Father d’Adda. However, there was a second favourite I have not been able to identify by name, who figures in The Sham Prince Expos’d simply as “the Italian Count”.

Consequently, when an Italian Count showed up in The Amours Of Messalina, I assumed it was the same person, with Father d’Adda figuring as “Father Pedro”. However, the key to the work (belatedly appended to the fourth part, along with the rather hurtful explanation that, The Bookseller has been Advised to Add the following Key, for the benefit of the meanest Capacity, in understanding the whole History of Messalina) reveals that “Count Davila” is supposed to be Father d’Adda, while “Father Pedro” is the Jesuit Peters—or rather, Sir Edward Petre, an English Jesuit who was appointed privy councillor under James.

 The Amours Of Messalina offers both versions of the baby’s origin. With “Poor Lycogenes” in declining health, syphilitic and impotent, the worried conclave sees its chance of propagating Paganism in Albion slipping away. It is finally agreed that their only hope is for Messalina to bear a son, in conjunction with herself being named Regent in the event of Lycogenes’ death. Since Lycogenes himself is unable to father a child, the conspirators must decide whether it is best for Mary to bear a child fathered by another man, or whether, in order to ensure that the baby is a boy, they should fake a pregnancy and supply a substitute prince. Messalina decides to do both: she will take on the task of falling pregnant, while her conspirators make the arrangements for faking a birth, should it prove necessary.

And having made this decision, Messalina throws herself into her task with great enthusiasm:

The Queen who by the several remonstrances of her three Counsellors had been both press’d and convinc’d of the danger of her Affairs, and being partly overcome by the Solicitations and Endearments of the Count in particular, resolv’d now to give a loose to her natural inclinations, and thereupon turning to the Count, in a soft languishing Tone she reply’d, I must at length, dear Davila, confess my own Frailty and thy Power, my haughty mind I see at last will stoop, and thou art Born to be my Conqueror… Raising the Count, who at every Word was pressing and kissing her fair Hand, she threw her Arms about his Neck, and in Amorous Sighs and Murmurs she Whisper’d her Wishes in his Ears…

But Messalina does not conceive with Davila any more than she did with Lycogenes, and at last it is realised that the substitution must go ahead. Several young pregnant women, all due to give birth around the same time, are kept in seclusion, while Messalina goes through the motions of pregnancy, fretting over the possibility of a miscarriage and giving voice to her hopes and fears, but not letting anyone – particularly not the deeply suspicious Philadelphia – get too close to her or touch her.

The Pagans of Albion are enlisted to lend the strength of their prayers to the task of producing a Catholic Prince of Wales:

…as a Prologue to their intended Villainy, they give out, among their own Party, at least, the necessity of Unity in their Prayers to their Saints and the Deity, to send their Majesty an Heir to succeed him in his Throne and Dominions, and to settle their Holy Religion in this Heretical Land, they cause Processions and Pilgrimages, Offerings and Supplications, to be made… Such are the practices of the Pagan Religion, that the greatest Villainies and Rogueries they intend to commit are still preceded and usher’d in with great appearances of Sanctity…

The confidence expressed beforehand by Catholics and Tories that Mary’s baby would be a boy played right into the hands of their opponents, who made this apparent prior knowledge the basis of their conspiracy theories about the child’s origins. Here, of course, everyone is quite right to be suspicious; the confusion of Mary’s due date, which gave her enemies more ammunition, is also referenced:

Besides, the Confidence of the Pagan Party did strangely startle the People, when like Oracles they would affirm that of necessity it must be a Prince: These and many other material circumstances made the Albionites talk broadly of the business; nor were Lycogenes and Messalina ignorant of their Sentiments; however having the Power absolutely in their hands, they were resolved to cut that knot which they found impossible to untie, and since they had thus far advanced in a business of that importance, they resolv’d to go through and bring it about, though with a thousand absurdities and incoherencies; for besides the alteration of her Reckoning, which proceeded partly from a fear of disappointment if the Woman that came first should have brought forth a Girl, but chiefly to amuse the Nobility and Gentry of the Court and Kingdom, who would doubtless have made it their business in behalf of the Princess Artemesia and the Kingdom, to attend and watch that all things might have been carryed fairly and above board…

In April of 1688, seven bishops including the Archbishop of Canterbury were arrested and charged with seditious libel after publishing their petition against James’ religious policies as a broadsheet; their subsequent acquittal was a huge blow to James and indicative of his increasingly shaky standing. In The Amours Of Messalina, however, the arrest of the bishops is all part of the plot:

Lycogenes was unluckily put in mind that by the Laws of Albion the presence of one or more of the Christian Prelates was to be at the Birth of every Royal Infant indispensably required; to resolve this difficulty a Council is immediately call’d, and after sundry debates it is concluded, that some way or other must be found to bring all or most of the dissenting part into a premunire, and so by aggravation either to endanger their lives, or at least to clap them up and secure them till the Queens Delivery; accordingly a flaw was immediately found and the Prelates forthwith confin’d…

There is indeed a false alarm when the first young woman gives birth to a girl, but with the second a sham prince is at the conspirators’ disposal, and Messalina “goes into labour”. Of this plot, if not the former, Lycogenes is fully cognisant, and plays his part by drawing away many of the courtiers who might otherwise insist on being present at “the birth”. A special, oversized, velvet-lined warming-pan has been devised for the transportation of the infant, which is smuggled into Messalina’s bed and subsequently produced in triumph.

Now feeling secure, Lycogenes begins to grant more and more privileges to the Pagans, even breaking the laws of Albion to do so. Torn between their duty to their country and their religion on one hand, and  to their king on the other, the Christians finally decide to petition Anaximander…

The Amours Of Messalina puts a spin on all the events that led up to the Glorious Revolution, presenting all the unsupported accusations made against James and Mary as based on fact and their removal as therefore right and proper. So intent is it upon its revisionism, it even manages the not inconsiderable task of being unjust to Judge George Jeffreys, then Lord Chancellor. As James pursued his increasingly open pro-Catholic policy, there was a growing fear amongst the English people that he might bring in French troops to enforce his position, particularly in light of the angry response of the army to Catholic military appointments. The Amours Of Messalina raises this particular spectre, but blunders by putting the prospect into the mouth of “Poliorcetes the Chancellor”, who also longs for the chance to assist the spread of Paganism by slaughtering more Christians. In spite of all his dirty work for James, Jeffreys was a staunch Protestant:  amusingly, the text manages to hit upon two things he would not have been guilty of, whatever his other excesses. (Mentions of Poliorcetes’ love of “fire and sword”, and a satirical reference to him as “the chief Judge of Conscience”, hit closer to the mark.)

Also amusing is that Monmouth appears at this point as “Perkin”. As we saw in the context of The Sham Prince Expos’d, Perkin Warbeck was a pretender to the throne of Henry VII. Finally admitting (albeit under torture) that he was an imposter, he was condemned and executed. Subsequently, “Perkin Warbeck”, or simply “Perkin”, became slang for any kind of audacious imposture; understandably, the term swiftly found its way into the armoury of those opposed to James. In particular, it became a favourite word with the future Queen Anne, who bought with great enthusiasm into the “sham prince” fantasy and never allowed that James Francis Edward was any blood relative of hers. Finding the expression put into the mouths of the “Pagans” and applied to Monmouth’s pretensions to the throne gives us a very good idea of Gregorio Leti’s opinion of him.

William of Orange, on the other hand, is everything that is noble and disinterested, desiring only to defend his faith and his wife’s interests:

When they plainly saw, their Own, and the Kingdoms Interest, resolved to be made a Sacrifice to the Ambition, and Covetousness of a small Party, that by the known Laws of the Land, were declared the irreconcileable Enemies of the Christians; they thought it then high time to look about them, and though they paid all the Reverence imaginable to the King, their Father; yet they could not resolve to yield their Rights and Inheritance, and hold precariously their Estates, at the Discretion of an Anti-Christian pack’d Councel… Anaximander, being a Prince of a Vast and Generous Spirit, was easily induc’d to condescend to their Relief; for, besides his proper Interest in the Crown of Albion, which by the common Principles of Nature, he was obliged to Maintain and Defend; he often would resolve on the Glory of the Action, and how Heroick and God-like it would shew, to appear the Great and Glorious Champion of the Christian Religion, which by a Secret League, between Polydorus King of the Gauls, and the King Lycogenes, was resolved to be wholly Extirpated…

In growing panic, the Pagans send their agents out amongst the people to try and win support for Lycogenes and to turn them against Anaximander, but to no avail:

And Father Pedro calling a convocation of his inferior Priests, makes them Dis-robe, and in disguise to mingle among the Christian Assemblies…and there with Confidence to utter false Reports, to lessen the Strength of Anaximander, to cry up the miseries of a Civil War, to Extol the Loyalty of the King’s Christian Subjects, to make comparison between young Perkin’s Expedition and this… Renegade Christian Divines, were ordered to Preach up the necessity of Obedience and Loyalty, to withstand the Prince in his Attempts, and to brand his Expedition with the horrible Title of Invasion. These, and many other Arts were used to take off the Edge of Anaximander’s Sword; sometimes they’d Brand His Royal Person with base and ignominious Names; other times they would think to terrifie the Rebels (as they would call all that would assist him) with the Exemplary Punishments, inflicted by the Chancellor Poliorcetes, in his bloody Western Campaign: But all would not do, the Christians knew the Pagan Punick Faith, as well as Inhumane Cruelty, they saw their Laws, their Liberties, and Lives at Stake; and that now was the only time to assert and recover them…

The Amours Of Messalina sticks briefly with the facts at this point, as Lycogenes vacillates over his response to Anaximander’s approach, trying to gauge how much support the venture is likely to find amongst the Albionites and who, if anyone, he can rely upon; while the narrative becomes openly pitying, lamenting James’ fall, his many mistakes, and ignominious retreat—but placing the blame elsewhere:

And now the Thread of Poor Lycogenes his Fate began to crack, now he could plainly see the errours of his Government, and when it was unhappily too late, might Curse the base designs of his pernicious Counsellors: now he was forc’d to stoop that Glorious Lofty Heart, which dauntless heretofore had braved the mightiest force of Europe. How was he chang’d, alas, from that brave Invincible Lycogenes, that did through Clouds of Smoake and Fire, Charge through the Belgian Fleet, and with fresh Lawrels Crown’d, return’d in Triumph to his joyfull Country: now every little Western breeze that heretofore did serve to blow and kindle up his flaming Courage, like some cold Pestilential air damps his Misgiving Soul; now Poor, forsaken of himself he stands, Conscience alone of Ills past done remains his tiresome guest: Attend ye cursed race of wicked Jebusites, see the Prodigious effects of your Pernicious Councels, ye Cloggs to Crowns, and bane of Power.

But on the back of this the narrative effectively dismisses Lycogenes, instead following Messalina to the court of Polydorus, who no sooner lays eyes upon her than he determines upon making her his mistress. Messalina sees this at once and, for that matter, has every intent of satisfying his desires and her own; although she strings Polydorus along for a time first, making a great show of her honour and chastity. At this point the whole exercise degenerates into a farcical bit of amatory writing, with Polydorus sleeping with the baby’s nurse by mistake before he and Messalina finally begin their affair, and with Messalina simultaneously pursued by the Dauphin. It was a common slander that Mary of Modena was (or became) the mistress of Louis XIV, but even so these ribald sexual manoeuvrings make for a peculiar conclusion.

09/02/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 7)

“Some bills Philander left her, and was so plain with her, and open-hearted, he told her that he went indeed with Cesario, but it was in order to serve the King; that he was weary of their actions, and foresaw nothing but ruin would attend them; that he never repented him of any thing so much, as his being drawn in to that faction; in which he found himself so greatly involved, he could not retire with any credit…”

The concluding stages of The Amours Of Philander And Sylvia – and of Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister – finds Aphra Behn returning to the roman à clef format of her first volume, in order to deal with the events of June and July, 1685. First, however, like Behn herself, we must consider the fate of Sylvia, deserted once again by Philander who has left her to join Cesario and the other rebels.

In the wake of Philander’s departure, he and she between them having used up the bulk of what they filched from Octavio, Sylvia is thrown back upon her only remaining support: Brilliard, still fixated upon her, still biding his time and waiting for the chance that has finally come. Here we get a perverse kind of inversion of the relationship between Sylvia and Octavio, as now it is Sylvia who tries to create a fantasy world where she is still the great lady, Brilliard still her servant, her tool –  and Brilliard who plays along for his own purposes.

His tactics finally yield the desired result. Alone and with her resources dwindling, Sylvia begins to rely on Brilliard more and more, taking him into her confidence and at length allowing him to become increasing familiar with her, until, “Sylvia no longer resisted, or if she did, it was very feebly, and with a sort of wish that he would pursue his boldness yet farther; which at last he did, from one degree of softness and gentle force to another, and made himself the happiest man in the world.” Sylvia suffers reaction, naturally, but Brilliard has learned how to manage her: “He redoubled his submission in so cunning a manner, that he soon brought her to a good humour; and after that, he used the kind authority of a husband whenever he had an opportunity, and found her not displeased at his services.”

At this point, it seems likely that we are to be witness to Sylvia’s downward spiral; her growing dependence upon Brilliard; her inability to survive without a man; her final, abject destruction. Then something extraordinary happens: Sylvia shakes off her funk and pulls herself together. She cannot indeed survive without a man – in the sense that they have the money she needs – but that’s not to say she must submit to their terms.

The remainder of Sylvia’s story finds her increasingly taking charge of her own life. First she detatches herself temporarily from Brilliard, dons her boy’s clothes, and sets out on adventures of her own. She encounters a Spanish nobleman, Don Alonzo, who is young, handsome and wealthy – and finds herself sharing a bed with him, still in her man’s disguise. She sets herself to win him, and succeeds so well that Alonzo, “…was not seen in Brussels for eight days and nights after.”

Behn’s choice of language here is remarkable. We hear how Sylvia, “…gained that evening a thousand conquests; but those were not the trophies she aimed at, it was Alonzo was the marked-out victim, that she destined for the sacrifice of love.” Conquest…trophies…victim…sacrifice… We’ve heard all this before, but in another context: this is the language of Philander, from the beginning of our story. And most significantly of all, we hear that Sylvia is dying for Alonzo…

In short, Sylvia has become Philander – but a more successful Philander – a Philander who, absorbing the lessons of her botched affair with Octavio, has learned to keep her eyes on the prize. At length we find her juggling four men at once – conducting her affair with Alonzo; from time to time seeing Philander who, smugly convinced she still loves him, gives her money when he can; keeping Brilliard (“…she knew she could make him her slave, her pimp, her anything…”) on a string; and most incredibly of all, taking money from the still besotted Octavio, under promises of reformation and a retired, decent life – and successfully keeping all four balls in the air at once.

It is impossible to read Sylvia’s story and not feel how it influenced Daniel Defoe; but whereas Defoe’s anti-heroines tell their tales from a late-life vantage point of reformation (however unconvincing), Behn saw no need to reform Sylvia. On the contrary: Sylvia’s “reward” at the end of her journey is the profitable ability to keep her emotions in check, and to use and discard other people to her own advantage; in short, to behave like a man. It is a peculiar and disturbing triumph, but a triumph nevertheless. In a world where it is destroy or be destroyed, we know that Sylvia will survive. Our last glimpse of her in the novel is her enforced departure from Brussels, Brilliard in her train and the wreck of Alonzo in her wake: “…of whom they made so considerable advantages, that in a short time they ruined the fortune of that young nobleman and became the talk of the town; insomuch that the Governor not permitting their stay there, she was forced to remove for new prey; and daily makes considerable conquests wherever she shows the charmer…”

And now to Philander…and Cesario.

The last thing I want here (or, I’m sure, you want) is to get lost in a lengthy retelling of the Monmouth Rebellion. So I’ll try to keep this brief, touching only upon the main points, and those moments where our old friend Lord Grey comes to prominence.

After years of vacillation and plots that came to nothing, Monmouth was finally brought to the point of rebellion by the combined efforts of Grey and Robert Ferguson, “the Plotter”. Ferguson was a former Presbyterian minister who was active in pamphleteering and conspiracy all the way through the years of the Exclusion Crisis and, like Grey and Monmouth, implicated in the Rye House Plot. It was Ferguson who drafted Monmouth’s “manifesto”, the document that spelled out the grounds upon which Monmouth rebelled against James, which instead of focusing upon “acceptable” grounds of rebellion such as defence of Protestantism, accused James of every crime imaginable, including murdering his brother. It was probably this document as much as the rebellion itself that sealed Monmouth’s fate.

Monouth and his army landed in Dorset, a Protestant stronghold, and at first many among the local population did flock to him enthusiastically; but an extended period of  fruitless marching and manoeuvring saw the spirits of most begin to evaporate. The failure of a planned simultaneous rebellion in Scotland led by the Earl of Argyle was a severe blow. Indeed, Monmouth was at this point willing to call the whole thing off, and tried to slip away from his forces. He might have done so had he not been dissuaded by a passionate speech from Lord Grey, who convinced him that, “To leave the army now would be an act so base that it would never be forgiven by the people.”

Grey, by necessity, had been put in charge of Monmouth’s cavalry – an arrangement on which some historians place much of the blame for the failure of the rebellion. The cavalry was twice completely routed by James’s forces, once literally turning tail and fleeing the battle, leaving Monmouth and the infantry unsupported. While our view of Grey’s conduct is now inevitably coloured by our knowledge of the outcome of his story, whether this was really cowardice or incompetence, as is often asserted, or whether Grey simply wasn’t qualified for the job, it is impossible to say. Only the damage done to Monmouth’s cause is indisputable.

The Monmouth Rebellion ended at the Battle of Sedgemoor on the 6th of July. Around a thousand men were killed, most of them Monmouth’s, but the leaders of the rebellion survived. Robert Ferguson got away and escaped to Holland, but both Grey and Monmouth were captured. The latter, who had fled the battlefield, was discovered hiding in a ditch disguised as a shepherd. As soon as Monmouth found himself in enemy hands, he went to pieces. Grey, however, remained calm and composed. Possibly he was one of those who are at their best when things are at their worst. Or, possibly, he knew something…

Brought before James, Monmouth literally grovelled, sobbing and pleading for his life, and throwing the blame onto everyone else. He was soon brought to understand he wasn’t facing his soft-hearted father any more: James was inflexible and vengeful even under normal circumstances, and these were not exactly normal circumstances. In his last extemity, Monmouth – defender of the Protestant faith – promised to convert to Catholicism if James would spare his life. James met him halfway – which is to say, he offered to facilitate Monmouth’s conversion. Knowing himself doomed, Monmouth managed to pull himself together. He was comparatively calm during his final moments, making neither the defiant speech James feared, nor the public apology James wanted. “I come to die, not to talk,” was all he said; final words variously reported as stoic or sullen.

Indeed, Monmouth’s last thoughts and last words were not of his ambitions, or his rebellion, but of his mistress, Lady Henrietta Wentworth, who he had loved for many years, and whose personal fortune paid for most of Monmouth’s activities. At the last, he handed a gold toothpick-case to one of the witnesses, begging him to give it back to Lady Henrietta, before submitting to his execution – which was, by the way, nightmarishly botched. Legend has it that James made sure the axe was blunt…

Aphra Behn’s account of the rebellion runs in parallel with the ongoing story of Philander and Sylvia throughout the third volume of her novel. She also introduces a new character, Count Tomaso, who is one of the prime movers in the rebellion…and in whom we may recognise the Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury, of course, died in 1683, two years before James’s succession, and so played no part in the real story of Monmouth’s rebellion. However, aside from his role during the Exclusion Crisis, Shaftesbury did spend the final year of his life trying to argue, provoke and cajole Monmouth into revolt against Charles, so Behn’s resurrection of him in her novel isn’t as gratuitous or as spiteful as it might at first appear. (In case anyone was in doubt about Tomaso’s identity, Behn makes use of a piece of embarrassing gossip about Shaftesbury that was popular with his enemies, and has Tomaso avoiding arrest by scrambling naked up onto the canopy of his mistress’s bed and hiding there.)

Shaftesbury, as we may recall, was one of the five ministers forced by Charles to sign the Treaty of Dover. Those five became subsequently known as “the Cabal”, a word constructed from the first initials of their names or titles (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley-Cooper, Lauderdale), with the acronym subsequently entering the vernacular with its current meaning of a secret gathering, or a sinister conspiracy. As with the word “philander”, it was Aphra Behn who popularised the term, via her repeated use of it in her novel to signify the underhanded nature of Cesario’s doings. Cesario and his followers do not  meet to discuss things, they “cabal”; they are “caballists”, who are always “caballing”. The word is used from time to time prior to this point, although always with connection with Cesario; but with the arrival in the story of Tomaso, its use in the novel becomes almost obsessive.

But Tomaso is only a supporting character in Behn’s account of the events of 1685. Her focus is upon Monmouth / Cesario, who she turns into a figure of ridicule, entirely under the control of Robert Ferguson / Fergusano and Lady Henrietta / Hermione, the latter of whom dreams of being queen of “France”. Monmouth was known to be deeply superstitious; when he was caught, he was carrying a notebook full of supposed charms for warding off death in battle and opening prison doors. What’s more, Monmouth’s devotion to his Henrietta, a woman condemned in her day for being “old and ugly” (that is, she was twenty-five and no beauty), was often attributed to his being literally bewitched. The gold toothpick-case, given by Henrietta to Monmouth and which occupied the last thoughts of his life, was supposed to hold the charm by which she controlled him.

Behn, of course, has a field day with all this. Playing on Monmouth’s apparent belief in magic, she casts Robert Ferguson as a literal magician, a master of the dark arts, whose hold over Cesario rests largely on his mysterious powers; as if Monmouth’s rebellion against James could only be explained in terms of black magic. She also makes much of the toothpick-case, having Hermione keep in it a love-philtre received from Fergusano to use against Cesario. Cesario himself emerges as a fool, a buffoon, a puppet – until the moment of his death, when Behn backs off. She doesn’t reference the horrors of Monmouth’s execution, but neither does she ridicule him further; she allows Cesario to die with dignity, even to be mourned. She retreats even further when describing the fate of “Hermione”. Henrietta Wentworth herself died not long after Monmouth. Most commentators greeted the event with sneers and bad jokes; Behn, almost alone, is quite kind with her memory. Perhaps she was startled, even awed, to find that someone actually could “die of love”.

And where, in all this, is Philander? Not where you might expect. Lord Grey’s conduct during the rebellion and afterwards remains a matter for debate. I myself turned for guidance on this point to my dear friend Thomas Macaulay – who I find I prefer as a literary critic than as an historian; the political bias is just a bit too obvious. Macaulay, a staunch Whig, spends much of his detailed and otherwise very interesting account of the rebellion making excuses for Grey.

And oddly, by the end of her novel, Aphra Behn is also making excuses for “Philander”. Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows. But while Macaulay defended Grey as a Whig, Behn did so for quite opposite reasons. In her view, the rebellion was so entirely wrong and immoral that to desert it for any reason, at any time and under any circumstances, was the right thing to do – even if it meant behaving in a way that by normal standards was disgraceful and cowardly.

As the likelihood of open rebellion grows, so do Philander’s doubts. He confesses to Sylvia his fervent wish he’d never gotten involved, or that he could see a way out. He even speaks publicly against the venture, much to Cesario’s displeasure, and although he finally takes his place on the battlefield, his reluctance is apparent:

“Some Authors in the relation of this Battle affirm, That Philander quitted his Post as soon as the Charge was given, and sheer’d off from that Wing he commanded… He disliked the Cause, disapproved of all their Pretensions, and look’d upon the whole Affair and Proceedings to be most unjust and ungenerous; And all the fault his greatest Enemies could charge him with, was, That he did not deal so gratefully with a Prince that loved him and trusted him…”

Behn’s own discomfort here is evident, even as she tries to whitewash Philander; note the involuntary flicker of sympathy for Cesario, otherwise her whipping-boy. She does succeed somewhat in painting the impossible position of a man who no longer believes in his own cause. The problem is, we know Philander never did believe in the cause; that he was out for himself from the start, using Cesario, whom he despised, to further his own ends. Consequently, his belated moral qualms provoke, not understanding, but a curl of the lip.

In reality, debate about Lord Grey has centred on whether he was incompetent, or a coward – or whether, as Behn almost unconsciously (or even unavoidably) suggests, he was in fact a Quisling within Monmouth’s ranks all along. Whatever the truth, in the end Lord Grey did what Lord Grey always did: he found a way to wriggle out of a tight situation.

Brought before James, Grey was composed. In the wake of Monmouth’s embarrassing self-debasement, his behaviour probably looked more heroic than it was. However, nothing he did from that point on can be remotely classified as “heroic”.

First, he penned a long, rambling, self-exculpatory confession, throwing all the blame of the rebellion onto Ferguson and Shaftesbury, playing down his own influence over Monmouth as much as possible, and painting himself as a poor, lonely, friendless exile from England, who in his desperation fell into bad company, and was led into bad ways. (Not surprisingly, the reason Grey was an exile in the first place isn’t mentioned – and nor, for that matter, is Henrietta Berkeley.) Second, he ratted out his friends, providing voluntary testimony against many others captured after Sedgemoor, many of whom were condemned and executed. And last – yet hardly, one imagines, least – he paid a “fine” of forty thousand pounds into the always ravenous royal coffers.

And on the strength of these three gestures, while others only a fraction as guilty as he, men and women, aristocrat and commoner, were being sentenced to death, Lord Grey was forgiven; and not just forgiven, but eventually welcomed back at court.

There is a limit to everything – even to Aphra Behn’s inclination to make excuses for a man swearing new loyalty to James. When Behn picked up her pen in 1684 to begin what would eventually become Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, not in her very wildest imaginings could she have invented a conclusion to her story such as reality provided. Nevertheless, being given such an opportunity, she made the most of it. This most improbable denouement to a most improbable sequence of events allowed Aphra Behn to write one of English literature’s great closing paragraphs, an ending to her story none the less viciously satirical for being absolutely true:

“Philander lay sometime in the Bastille, visited by all the Persons of great Quality about the Court; he behaved himself very Gallantly all the way he came, after his being taken, and to the last Minute of his Imprisonment; and was at last pardon’d, kiss’d the King’s Hand, and came to Court in as much Splendour as ever, being very well understood by all good Men.”

After a decade of persistent and increasing ill-health, Aphra Behn died at the age of forty-nine on the 16th of April, 1689 – five days after the coronation of William and Mary. Although we must mourn her loss at such a relatively young age, it does seem somehow fitting that this woman so distinctly, so uniquely of the Restoration should not have outlived the age that created her. Then, too, perhaps it’s just as well that she didn’t live to see the “real” end to her novel.

In June of 1688, a group of English noblemen, subsequently dubbed “the Immortal Seven”, sent a formal invitation to William of Orange, requesting his intervention in the English succession: the initial plan was to force James to disinherit his new-born son in favour of his daughter, Mary, William’s wife. It was November when William landed with his army, but his plans to do so had been known for at least two months, forcing not only James to decide upon a course of action, but also the dwindling numbers of statesmen who still publicly supported him – like Lord Grey.

It will come, I am sure, as no great surprise to anyone who has followed this story so far to hear that Grey’s choice was to betray the king to whom he owed his life, and to whom he swore oaths of fidelity after being received at court. His first thought as always his own skin, he abandoned James for William at the first opportunity.

And, sad to say, Grey did not merely survive under William: he thrived. Becoming a fixture at court, he was made Privy Councillor in 1695, the same year he was created Viscount Glendale and Earl of Tankerville. He subsequently served as First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Privy Seal and (in perhaps the sickest irony of all) Lord Justice of the Realm. The successful statesman died in 1701…remaining to the end, no doubt, well understood by all good men.

06/02/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 6)

“Thus he flatters and she believes, because she has a mind to believe; and thus by degrees he softens the listening Sylvia; swears his faith with sighs, and confirms it with his tears, which bedewed her fair bosom, as they fell from his bright dissembling eyes; and yet so well he dissembled, that he scarce knew himself that he did so: and such effects it wrought on Sylvia, that in spite of all her honour and vows engaged to Octavio, and horrid protestations never to receive again the fugitive to her arms, she suffers all he asks, gives herself up again to love, and is a second time undone…”

So where was Aphra Behn between 1685 and 1687? Writing, of course. It was quite a good time to be a Tory writer, the very events that had so shaken the country opening up fertile ground for the monarchists. Behn had done her Tory duty early in 1685, producing an elegy for the departed Charles, and another for the widowed Catherine (who did a bunk back to Portugal as soon as she could organise it – and who can blame her?); although neither of these can hold a candle to the 800 line “pindarick” she wrote to celebrate the coronation of James. Around the same time, Roger L’Estrange received a knighthood and returned to his old position of Licensor Of The Press, John Dryden was confirmed as Poet Laureate – and Thomas Shadwell was blacklisted.

But for the most part the theatre was still stagnant; it was not until towards the end of his reign that James, all too late, began commissioning plays in the hope of using them to win some public support. Aphra Behn would not get another play produced until 1687, when both The Luckey Chance and The Emperor Of The Moon brought her dramatic success; the last of her lifetime. Also during 1687, Behn published the third part of her first venture into fiction as The Amours Of Philander And Sylvia. This is easily the longest of the three volumes, which may in part account for the delay in its appearance. It also finds Behn using a third different form of prose writing in as many volumes. While a few letters are interpolated, this work is worlds away from the epistolary style of the first, or even the “half-and-half” approach of the second, and presents as what we would now view as a conventional piece of third-person narration; although the narrator does make personal comments and additions from time to time, as we shall see.

This third volume is, I imagine, by far the most difficult for most modern readers to absorb. It consists of two overlapping yet distinct stories, the second being Behn’s account of the Monmouth Rebellion of June, 1685, in which her old friend Lord Grey suddenly reappeared on the public stage. It may even be that Behn had begun her third volume before that, then had to scrap it and start over when reality suddenly intervened. From the reader’s point of view, the difficulty here is that Behn not only describes the rebellion and its aftermath, but includes any amount of insulting minutiae about the Duke of Monmouth which, while it would have been perfectly familiar to a contemporary audience swamped by accounts of Monmouth’s life and death, means very little to the reader of today.

First, however, we rejoin our pairs of lovers. Sylvia has promised to marry Octavio (Brilliard notwithstanding) if he will take revenge on Philander for her, while Philander is still indulging in his dangerous affair with Calista, in spite of the growing suspicions of her husband, Clarineau, and Dormina, the servant set to spy upon her. Ironically, Clarineau’s way of showing his displeasure, namely, failing to visit Calista’s bed, which would have been more than welcome to her at any other time in their marriage, is now a matter of urgency: Calista is pregnant, but cannot bring about the encounter with her husband that she needs to cover her infidelity.

As her condition begins to show, Calista begs Philander to run away with her. This escapade finds Calista, too, in drag: a guise that brings out her (to Philander) strange resemblance to Octavio…and, perhaps, also makes clear the basis of her attraction for her lover:

“I own I never saw anything so beautiful all over, from head to foot: and viewing her thus, (carrying my lanthorn all about her) but more especially her face, her wondrous, charming face—(pardon me, if I say, what does but look like flattery)—I never saw anything more resembling my dear Octavio, than the lovely Calista. Your very feature, your very smile and air; so that, if possible, that increased my adoration and esteem for her…”

Remembering the fate of Clarineau’s first wife, both Philander and Calista carry weapons as they try to make their escape. They are caught by Clarineau, his nephew and his servants. As the latter engage Philander, Clarineau draws a poniard and stabs Calista, who fires her pistol at him, wounding him. Philander fights off the others, and manages to escape with the injured Calista. However, the two are soon caught and imprisoned – their jailers not realising Calista’s sex. She is terrified of being returned to Clarineau and his vengeance, while Philander knows that he himself will suffer nothing worse than a spell in prison and a fine for the cuckoldry. Calista having her jewels with her, Philander is able to pull his usual stunt – “The master of the prison was very civil and poor” – and Calista is allowed to escape, fleeing to Brussels and taking refuge in a convent where the Abbess is her aunt.

All this Philander recounts in a letter to Octavio, concluding with a request that Octavio write on his behalf to the magistrates of Cologne – sending to Sylvia at the same time another letter filled with the usual excuses. Having already broken his oath to Philander, Octavio shows her both. It doesn’t quite go as he expected. The outraged Sylvia insists upon travelling to Brussels, so that she can confront Calista – only to find herself so personally affected by Calista’s beauty (and, of course, by her resemblance to Octavio), that she almost finds it in herself to forgive her perfidious lover. Almost. On departing, Sylvia takes her revenge by giving to Calista the letter that Octavio gave to her; and Calista discovers that the man she believed loved her so honourably and tenderly has given a boastful, blow-by-blow account of their affair to another man…and that man her own brother. Sylvia, meanwhile, swears that she has cut Philander from her heart forever, and is entirely Octavio’s…

In her handling of the relationship between Sylvia and Octavio, and then again in the eventual reuniting of Sylvia and Philander, Aphra Behn displays a frank fascination with the masochistic potentiality of love – and an even greater one with the capacity of lovers for self-deception. Although we here a lot about “the brave, the generous, the amorous” Octavio, Behn’s language is belied by her action. Octavio’s obsession with Sylvia is an exercise in delusion and denial. To us, the onlookers, his passion for Sylvia is clearly a kind of physical addiction, a habit that he cannot kick, one that manifests as a total refusal to see reality.

When Brilliard hears of Sylvia’s promise to marry Octavio, he appeals to the local authorities, declaring himself her husband. Octavio is connected, however, and Brilliard’s attempt to claim his rights ends in failure. Although Octavio is at first horrified by Brilliard’s declaration, Sylvia manages to convince him that at the time she “married” Brilliard, he already had a wife and children, as she later discovered. At this time, Sylvia gives Octavio her own account of her relationship with Philander; and in an hilarious touch, Aphra Behn reveals that she and Sylvia were both readers of the London Gazette:

“…but all search, all hue-and-cries were vain; at last, they put me into the weekly Gazette, describing me to the very features of my face, my hair, my breast, my stature…”

The apparent barrier to their relationship removed, Octavio’s passion for Sylvia returns with redoubled force: “…he was given over to his wish of possessing of Sylvia, and could not live without her; he loved too much, and thought and considered too little…” Octavio renews his promises of marriage to Sylvia, and begins to lavish extravagant gifts upon her, his obsession with her growing uncontrollable…and in context, more than a little creepy.

Although his acquaintance with Sylvia begins when she is another man’s mistress, although he hears from both Philander and Sylvia the full truth of their relationship, Octavio insists upon courting Sylvia as if she were still the innocent girl she once was – not out of generosity, or kindness, or tact, but because this is the only way he can justify himself to himself. Sylvia is entranced by the fantasy world Octavio creates for them, which allows her to pretend that she has regained the position in life that she threw away for Philander, and intoxicated by her sense of power; she eagerly plays the part Octavio has tacitly written for her. When their mutual role-playing game ends, inevitably, in sex, Sylvia reacts not as an experienced woman, but like a ruined girl: “At first he found her weeping in his arms, raving on what she had inconsiderately done, and with her soft reproaches chiding her ravished lover…”

And perhaps here I should mention that while she lies in Octavio’s arms, weeping for an honour and a virginity long since departed, as Octavio swears to repair the great wrong he has done to her by making her his wife…Sylvia is at least five month’s pregnant with Philander’s child.

One of the most difficult things for modern readers to come to terms with in the literature of this period is its attitude to pregnancy, which is generally treated as just an inconvenience, a nuisance, but nothing that should be allowed to interfere with the business of life. It is certainly never considered a reason why two people shouldn’t have an affair. (If anything, on the contrary: you know the old saying…) In this respect, Love Letters is entirely representative. Remember that Calista, too, is pregnant when she finds refuge in the convent. There, taking stock, she is overwhelmed with shame and remorse. When her child is born, she has it taken away, before giving up the world and becoming a nun. Meanwhile, Sylvia also bears her baby…which is never mentioned again. We are given no hint of its fate; it simply disappears; and except for one or two passing references to Sylvia getting her figure back, there is no indication that she was ever pregnant, or that she ever thinks about it again. Nor is the double father remotely interested in his children’s fates.

Several decades after this, Daniel Defoe would be using his anti-heroines’ attititude to their children as a yardstick of their characters; here, Sylvia’s pregnancy is nothing more than a measure of the depth of Octavio’s delusion. As his obsession grows, Octavio rains money and jewels upon Sylvia, and sets her up in a mansion, swearing that he will marry her, “As soon as Sylvia should be delivered from that part of Philander, of which she was possessed.” But before Octavio can make good on his promise, Philander reappears on the scene…

Released from prison, Philander travels to Brussels, to the convent, where he hears quite a few home-truths from the Abbess before the door is slammed in his face. This encounter reveals to Philander that Octavio has betrayed him to Sylvia; and here Aphra Behn gives us another glimpse of the ugly reality of her world; woman’s world. Behn offers excuses for women’s perfidy in love, arguing that the world as it is hardly allows women to be honest if they would (and note the revealing slip into the first person):

“Thus she spoke, without reminding that this most contemptible quality she herself was equally guilty of, though infinitely more excusable in her sex, there being a thousand little actions of their lives, liable to censure and reproach, which they would willingly excuse and colour over with little falsities; but in a man, whose most inconstant actions pass oftentimes for innocent gallantries, and to whom it is no infamy to own a thousand amours, but rather a glory to his fame and merit; I say, in him, (whom custom has favoured with an allowance to commit any vices and boast of it) it is not so brave.”

But as with Behn’s railing against “interested” marriage and the selling of young girls to old men, this denouncing of the double standard is a cry in the wilderness. Despite Philander’s breaking of his vows to his wife, his seduction of Sylvia, and his months of bald-faced lies to her as he seduces and ruins another woman, we are given to understand that the only crime committed against honour in all this is Octavio’s breaking of his promise to Philander, the betrayal of man by man; that in fact, it is Philander who is the injured party:

“…he no longer doubted, but that his confidante had betrayed him every way. He rails on false friendship, curses the Lady Abbess, himself, his fortune, and his birth; but finds it all in vain: nor was he so infinitely afflicted with the thought of the loss of Calista (because he had possessed her) as he was to find himself betrayed to her, and doubtless to Sylvia, by Octavio.”

Philander and Octavio will later fight a duel on this point; later still, Octavio will concede to Philander that he was the one who committed the real breach of honour. And it is Octavio, the obsessive lover Octavio, who will finally put Woman firmly in her place – unearthing the novel’s subtext again in the process:

“‘These vows cannot hinder me from conserving entirely that friendship in my heart, which your good qualities and beauties at first sight engaged there, and esteeming you more than perhaps I ought to do; the man whom I must yet own my rival, and the undoer of my sister’s honour. But oh—no more of that; a friend is above a sister, or a mistress.’ At this he hung down his eyes and sighed—“

But Octavio still has some distance to travel before he can set aside his passion for Sylvia and become “a real man” – a man’s man, as it were. Although she has, to all appearances, got Octavio exactly where she wants him – has the prospect of a life so far beyond what she might expect in her circumstances as to almost boggle the mind – Sylvia is finally, fatally, betrayed by her vanity. Her absolute power over Octavio she credits to her own irresistible charm and beauty, not to Octavio’s consitutional blindness; and so abject is he in his devotion, she begins to take him just a little for granted…

Although Philander’s behaviour has killed her love for him, Sylvia realises that his betrayal of her, his finding another woman more beautiful, more desirable, than she, still rankles. She begins to toy with the notion of bringing him back to her feet, just to show that she can. As for Philander, Sylvia vanished from his thoughts the moment he set eyes on Calista; yet when he receives a letter from her declaring that she doesn’t want him any more, he instantly discovers that he wants her – and swears that he will have her again.

The resulting mutual exercise in emotionless manoeuvring and jockeying for the position of power evolves into a sick recapitulation of their original encounter – both of them falling back into their original roles without even recognising it (or as Behn puts it, “So well he dissembled, that he scarce knew himself that he did so…”) – and ends, sure enough, in Sylvia’s bed…where Octavio finds them. And even this he forgives…but in a seemingly contradictory yet psychologically convincing touch, this for Sylvia is the final straw. She has demonstrated the limitlessness of her power over Octavio; he no longer holds any challenge for her. Instead, bundling up the jewels and money and other portables that he has given her, Sylvia elopes again with Philander.

What follows is one of this novel’s strangest passages – indeed, one of the strangest things Behn ever wrote – as Octavio, his eyes opened at long last, retreats from the world as his sister did, entering a monastery. Here, the narration suddenly switches to the first person, as we hear that, I myself went to this ceremony, having, in all the time I lived in Flanders, never been so curious to see any such thing…

The evolution of the narrative voice across these three volumes is intriguing, and a fairly clear indication that initially Behn intended to write only the first of the three. The letters that make up Part 1, as you may remember, were supposed to have been found in a closet after Philander and Sylvia left the house where they had been living together between the time of their original elopement and Philander’s arrest, escape and flight from France. Presumably, then, the writer of the first volume’s preface is not the same person who supplies the narrative voice for the later ones. This third part contains some interesting experimentation with narrative possibilities, as Behn shifts back-and-forth between third-person-omniscient and first-person-onlooker – sometimes within the same passage.

Although she was not, as I have said, at all religious, Aphra Behn had a life-long fascination with the external aspects of Catholicism, its rituals, its art, its exoticism, its public display…all the things, in other words, that good Protestants were supposed to despise. There are various bits of erotica through this third volume of Behn’s story, but perversely, nothing that matches the sensuality of her description of Octavio’s withdrawal from the world:

“For my part , I confess, I thought myself no longer on earth; and sure there is nothing gives an idea of real heaven, like a church all adorned with rare pictures, and the other ornaments of it, with whatever can charm the eyes; and music, and voices, to ravish the ear…But, for his face and eyes, I am not able to describe the charms that adorned them; no fancy, no imagination, can paint the beauties there: he looked indeed, as if he were made for heaven; no mortal ever had such grace… Ten thousand sighs, from all sides, were sent him, as he passed along, which, mixed with the soft music, made such a murmuring, as gentle breezes moving yielding boughs… All I could see around me, all I heard, was ravishing and heavenly; the scene of glory, and the dazzling altar… The Bishop turned and blessed him; and while an anthem was singing, Octavio, who was still kneeling, submitted his head to the hands of a Father, who, with a pair of scissors, cut off his delicate hair; at which a soft murmur of pity and grief filled the place…”

As for Philander and Sylvia, they’re in pretty much the state you’d expect of two people held together only by their equal determination not to be the one who is discarded:

“Philander, whose head was running on Calista, grudged every moment he was not about that affair, and grew as peevish as she; she recovers to new beauty, but he grows colder and colder by possession; love decayed, and ill humour increased: they grew uneasy on both sides, and not a day passed wherein they did not break into open and violent quarrels, upbraiding each other with those faults, which both wished that either would again commit, that they might be fairly rid of one another…”

And from this state of mutual torment they are at long last delivered by a summons to Philander from Cesario: the rebellion of the Huguenots against the king of France is finally to take place…

[Aww, I really thought this would be the last of it. Curse you, Aphra Behn, and your infinitely discussable novel! Just one more piece, that’s all, I swear…]

26/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 4)

“My Sylvia, thou art so dear to me, so wondrous precious to my soul, that in my extravagance of love, I fear I shall grow a troublesome and wearying coxcomb, shall dread every look thou givest away from me—a smile will make me rave, a sigh or touch make me commit a murder on the happy slave, or my own jealous heart, but all the world besides is Sylvia’s, all but another lover; but I rave and run too fast away; ages must pass a tedious term of years before I can be jealous, or conceive thou can’st be weary of Philander…”

And so, her passion overwhelming her judgement, Sylvia invites Philander to her room; and—

Nothing.

There are any number of ways in which we might interpret Philander’s embarrassing sexual failure, most simply that his mouth – or his pen – has been writing cheques that his body can’t cash. We should remember, in this respect, that Restoration writers often used impotence as a code for the presence of venereal disease. It is likely that Behn is covertly telling us here how far we should believe in Philander’s obsessive passion for Sylvia – i.e. not very.

More fittingly in the first true epistolary novel, there is also the sense here that Philander has “written” his passion for Sylvia into existence; that to an extent he has created an imaginary Sylvia with which the real one cannot compete. Repeatedly, Philander’s letters explode into extended fantasies of the joys to be experienced; again and again he speaks of “the irresistible Idea of Sylvia” and of “what I already so much adored in Idea”. Perhaps it is not surprising that Philander finds the reality inadequate to sustain his desire.

Impotence was a recurring motif in Aphra Behn’s writing – possibly her way of dealing with existence in a world where man’s power was essentially limitless, and woman’s essentially non-existent. You can imagine that she got a sour sort of satisfaction out of reminding people that in certain circumstances, the all-powerful male wasn’t quite so all-powerful. Behn’s most remarkable and sustained examination of the subject is her poem, The Disappointment, in which we find a situation very similar to the one implied in Love Letters: a young woman finally brought to the point of surrender, a man unable to perform. The difference is that in her poem, Behn is able to describe the event directly; very directly. Indeed, the subject matter and explicitness of her language resulted in The Disappointment being for some time misattributed to the Earl of Rochester. Behn quietly reappropriated her poem after her friend’s early death.

Philander’s abortive visit to Sylvia’s room presents Behn with her first major challenge as a prose writer. To that point, in the verbal sparring and manoeuvring of her lovers she has been quite at home; but now she must deal with events at which both were present. However, the nature of the contretemps makes it permissable for each of them subsequently to reflect upon it in a letter. Philander’s reaction is an even more than usually extravagant missive that, examined closely, amounts simply to a protracted wail of, This never happened to me before! – while Sylvia, in her shame and humiliation, responds by calling the affair off.

Perversely, the fact that the sexual act did not actually happen frees Behn here to describe the lead-up in deeply erotic terms – in Sylvia’s voice as well as in Philander’s. One of the things that drew so much contemporary criticism upon Aphra Behn was her stubborn insistence upon the reality and the strength of female sexual desire. She was a passionate woman herself, and looked upon women who denied, or refused to act upon, their sexual desires as hypocrites and liars. She says as much here, in Sylvia’s voice, railing against the social conventions that gave women only the choice of admitting their passions and being outcasts, or hiding them and living a life of practised deceit and concealment:

“Ah, what’s a woman’s honour when it is so poorly guarded! No wonder that you conquer with such ease, when we are only safe by the mean arts of dissimulation, an ill as shameful as that to which we fall. Oh silly refuge! What foolish nonsense fond custom can persuade: Yet so it is; and she that breaks her laws, loses her fame, her honour and esteem. Oh heavens! How quickly lost it is! Give me, ye powers, my fame, and let me be a fool; let me retain my virtue and my honour, and be a dull insensible.”

And for all the shocked reaction to it, feigned or otherwise, there is not much doubt that the eroticism of Behn’s language in describing the feelings of Philander and Sylvia here is one of the main reasons her novel remained in print throughout the entire 18th century, long after its political relevance had faded.

Here is Sylvia, reflecting upon her emotions upon Philander entering her room:

“What though I lay extended on my bed, undressed, unapprehensive of my fate, my bosom loose and easy of access, my garments ready, thin and wantonly put on, as if they would with little force submit to the fond straying hand: what then, Philander, must you take advantage?…So faintly and so feebly I upbraided you, as did but more advance your perjuries. Your strength increas’d, but mine alas declin’d; ’till I quite fainted in your arms, left you triumphant lord of all: no more my faint denials do persuade, no more my trembling hands resist your force, unregarded lay the treasure which you toil’d for, betrayed and yielded to the lovely conqueror…”

Philander’s own version of the same moment warrants close inspection. This was, remember, Aphra Behn’s first published prose work. She was still a neophyte at the form; yet consider here the brilliant building tempo of the writing, the physicality of the detail…and the comically abrupt conclusion:

“I saw the ravishing maid as much inflamed as I; she burnt with equal fire, with equal languishment: not all her care could keep the sparks concealed, but it broke out in every word and look; her trembling tongue, her feeble fainting voice betrayed it all; signs interrupting every syllable; a languishment I never saw till then dwelt in her charming eyes, that conradicted all her little vows; her short and double breathings heaved her breast, her swelling snowy breast, her hands that grasped me trembling as they closed, while she permitted mine unknown, unheeded to traverse all her beauties, till quite forgetting all I had faintly promised, and wholly abandoning my soul to joy, I rushed upon her, who, all fainting, lay beneath my useless weight, for on a sudden all my power was fled, swifter than lightning hurried through my enfeebled veins, and vanished all…”

It is, I think, the opening phrase of that quote that cuts to the heart of the matter. I spoke in my previous post about the tendency of this novel to equate love with warfare. This was not an idea unique to Aphra Behn; on the contrary. It was a commonplace at the time that women were to be “conquered”; that a man could not feel desire unless he felt also his own “triumph”, the woman’s “surrender”; and that the end of every affair was inevitable in its beginning, because where there was nothing left to be conquered, there was nothing to desire. The literature of this time, and indeed for several decades afterwards, is full of disturbing “seduction” scenes that are half an inch off being rape – and sometimes not that far.

Philander’s language in his letters reflects this convention. He dwells with pleasure upon his own capacity for violence, the idea that one day he will no longer treat Sylvia with “respect or Awe”, but sweep aside her hesitations and fears and, “…force my self with all the violence of raging Love…and Ravish my delight.” Even the inexperienced Sylvia uses the same sort of language, referring to Philander, as we have seen, as “triumphant lord” and “the lovely conqueror”. In her letter after the event, the mortified Sylvia assumes that Philander’s failure was her fault, while the real problem was not that she was insufficiently desirable, but too openly desiring. Met with a passion equal to his own, Philander retreats.

But Aphra Behn is not yet done humiliating her anti-hero. Worried that he has been spotted on his way to Sylvia’s room, upon making his escape Philander takes the precaution of disguising himself as Sylvia’s maid, Melinda. What he doesn’t remember, however, is that Sylvia’s father has designs upon the girl; and on his way through the grove of trees leading to the back gate of the property, “Melinda” is cornered by Count Bertoli and made a proposition of the most unmistakable nature:

“I replied as before—‘I am no whore, sir’—‘No,’ cries he, ‘but I can quickly make thee one, I have my tools about me, sweet-heart; therefore let us lose no time, but fall to work… Come, come, Melinda, why all this foolish argument at this hour and in this place, and after so much serious courtship; believe me, I’ll be kind to thee for ever;’ with that he clapped fifty guineas in a purse into one hand, and something else that shall be nameless into the other, presents that had been both worth Melinda’s acceptance…”

And Sylvia, too, suffers a further humiliation, but of a very different nature. To this point the story has been told essentially in two voices, but now a third intrudes, as Sylvia receives a letter from her sister, Myrtilla – Philander’s wife. We learn that Myrtilla is only too aware of the situation, but hoping for the best has held her tongue, keeping the secret from her parents. Seeing, however, that Sylvia is teetering on the brink of ruin, Myrtilla tries to pull her back from the edge, speaking, as she assures Sylvia, out of pity, not anger.

Myrtilla’s arguments are three-fold: the threat to Sylvia’s, and thus her family’s, honour; the unusual horror, as she phrases it, of it being Sylvia’s brother who pursues her; and finally, that Sylvia cannot trust Philander. It is the first two arguments that work upon Sylvia; the third that speaks to the reader, above all Myrtilla’s sad reflection that everything Philander is now saying and promising Sylvia, he once said and promised to her; that this desperate love-pursuit is nothing more to him than an elaborate game:

“He once thought me as lovely, lay at my feet, and sighed away his soul, and told such piteous stories of his sufferings, such sad, such mournful tales of his departed rest, his broken heart and everlasting love, that sure I thought it had been a sin not to have credited his charming perjuries; in such a way he swore, with such a grace he sighed, so artfully he moved, so tenderly he looked. Alas, dear child, then all he said was new, never told before, now it is a beaten road…love at second hand, worn out, and all its gaudy lustre tarnished…”

So accurate is this that it strikes the reader as equally comic and sickening: “piteous stories of his sufferings” are indeed Philander’s stock-in-trade, always dying for love yet always in perfect health. Significantly, too, there is no hint, no consciousness, in this letter of Myrtilla’s own supposed infidelities; and in spite of the insistence in the preface of Myrtilla’s affair with Cesario, we remember the contention by some that the rumoured affair between Lady Mary Grey and the Duke of Monmouth was merely a story invented by Lord Grey to give himself an excuse and an opportunity.

Shamed by this letter, yet not taking its truth to heart, Sylvia once again tells Philander, and far more definitely, that all is over; although she does not reveal to him the reason. Sylvia has a suitor, Foscario, who is approved by her parents; and seeing him leave the house in good spirits in the wake of his own receipt of Sylvia’s letter of renunciation, Philander chooses to believe that Sylvia has bestowed her hand upon his rival. He later sends Sylvia an account of his subsequent agonies, his contemplation of suicide—and his substitution of murder for suicide, confronting Foscario with his sword drawn; his need to dramatise himself, we note, infinitely outweighing his obligation to keep Sylvia’s secret.

Sylvia, however, does not see Philander’s essential selfishness, but only his danger, and his jealousy. Her need to reassure him of her love supersedes all else – including her loyalty to her sister. On the second attempt, there is no failure. We can readily believe that after the previous embarrassment, Philander found himself confronting a Sylvia who was far more shy, more shrinking, more uncertain; more desirable; more conquerable.

The concluding section of this tale gives us an oddly compressed version of reality. For one thing, Behn makes little use in her story of the arrest and trial of Lord Grey for his “debauching” of his sister-in-law; but as full transcripts of the trial were printed and devoured by the public, she may have felt that there was no point in re-working it too extensively. Moreover, as we may remember, the affair between Grey and Henrietta Berkeley was carried on for a year before discovery; here, the lovers are discovered almost immediately – and I mean, immediately: we can only cringe as Count Bertoli forces his way into his daughter’s room before she’s even had a chance to rearrange the bedclothes. (Which is to say, she stopped to write a letter first.) We learn that, ironically, it is the realisation that Melinda doesn’t understand his reproaches that alerts Bertoli to the fact that an outsider has been on the premises; an intercepted letter does the rest. Sylvia is jointly confronted by her father, her mother, and her sister, and her doom pronounced: she must marry Foscario at once, to cover her guilt.

It is this that provokes the elopement of the lovers – and while Aphra Behn didn’t feel compelled to exploit Lord Grey’s trial, the gossip about Henrietta making her escape in only her nightclothes is another matter. The elopement goes wrong, and Philander is not at the appointed place. Sylvia must trust herself to his manservant, Brilliard – the story’s substitute for William Turner, who Sylvia will shortly marry under Philander’s persuasion. Reaching Paris (remember, this is supposed to be taking place in France), Sylvia writes a letter of mingled panic and reproach to Philander, describing herself as, “…undressed…even to my under-petticoat and night-gown” and “…almost naked” – and which she signs off with the declaration, Paris, Thursday, from my bed, for want of clothes…

And where is Philander? In all sorts of trouble. He arrives at the rendezvous late, to find the carriage containing Sylvia and Brilliard gone. In fact, frightened at the delay and the likelihood of being caught, Sylvia has insisted that the carriage start for Paris, but Philander concludes that she has been found out and carried back to her home. Spying out the land there, he sees Foscario – on what he believes to be the eve of his wedding – and forces on him a second duel, in which both men are wounded. Unable to be moved from the inn to which he is carried, Philander falls prey to Count Bertoli. His next letter to Sylvia is written from the Bastille:

“I am, my Sylvia, arrested at the suit of Monsieur the Count, your father, for a rape on my lovely maid: I desire, my soul, you will immediately take coach and go to see the Prince Cesario, and he will bail me out…”

This is the first serious mention of Cesario for some time, and signals the novel’s belated return to politics. First, however, there is a flurry of action. Cesario does as Sylvia asks, warning both parties that a desperate search for the girl is under way. It is this that prompts Philander to insist upon Sylvia and Brilliard’s marriage. We get a sudden outburst here from Aphra Behn, speaking through Sylvia, against the ugly realities of “interested” marriage in the late 17th century; in particular the common situation of a young girl being sold to a rich old man: an arrangement repeatedly excoriated in Behn’s writing, along with the idea that such a union could be considered “holy”—

“Were I in height of youth, as now I am, forced by my parents, obliged by interest and honour, to marry the old, deformed, diseased, decrepit Count Anthonio…and rather than suffer him to consummate his nuptials, suppose I should (as sure I should) kill myself, it were blasphemy to lay this fatal marriage to heaven’s charge—curse on your nonsense, ye imposing gownmen, curse on your holy cant; you may as well call rapes and murders, treason and robbery, the acts of heaven; because heaven suffers them to be committed.”

But even as Philander and Sylvia discuss how they may meet again, another disaster strikes: “Riding full-speed for Paris, I was met, stopped, and seized for high-treason by the King’s messengers, and possibly may fall a sacrifice to the anger of an incensed monarch…”

However, as Lord Grey escaped the Tower of London via the power of his money, so too does Philander escape on his way back to the Bastille: “I resolved to kill, if I could no other way oblige him to favour my escape; I tried with gold before I shewed him my dagger, and that prevailed…” There is a brief reflection on the possible fate of Cesario (Monmouth, we know, was allowed to escape after the exposure of the Rye House Plot, while his co-conspirators died for the same guilt), and then plans for a reunion. Again, as Lord Grey after his escape risked recapture to meet and flee the country with Henrietta Berkeley, so too Philander:

“I wait for Sylvia; and though my life depend upon my flight, nay, more, the life of Sylvia, I cannot go without her; dress yourself then, my dearest, in your boy’s clothes, and haste with Brilliard, whither this seaman will conduct thee, whom I have hired to set us on some shore of safety…”

So closes what Aphra Behn originally intended as her whole story, that of the affair, the arrest, the treason and the flight. It was as much as anyone knew of Lord Grey and Henrietta Berkeley, who hid themselves for two years after their escape from England. But as we now know, it wasn’t the end. Behn’s story, published anonymously, was a great success; and indeed, would be reissued at least a dozen times before the end of the century. Meanwhile, the literary climate of 1684 hadn’t changed: plays were still unwanted, and Aphra Behn still had to eat.

And, after all, I suppose it’s only fair that, having invented the modern novel, Aphra Behn should also invent the modern novel’s most frequent consequence: the cash-in sequel.

[To be continued…]

 

21/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 3)

“Let us, oh let us, my brother, sit down here, and pursue the crime of loving on no farther. Call me sister—swear I am so, and nothing but your sister: and forbear, oh forbear, my charming brother, to pursue me farther with your soft bewitching passion; let me alone, let me be ruin’d with honour, if I must be ruin’d.—For oh! ’twere much happier I were no more, than that I should be more than Philander’s sister; or he than Sylvia’s brother: oh let me ever call you by that cold name, ’till that of lover be forgotten.”

On top of publishing anonymously and resorting to the roman à clef format, the opening of Love-Letters Between A Noble-Man And His Sister finds Aphra Behn providing for herself a third layer of protection against the possible consequences of her tale of sex and politics: the age-old pretence of the “found manuscript”. The volume’s preface asserts that the letters were discovered, “…in their cabinets, at their house at St Denis, where they both lived together, for the space of a year; and they are as exactly as possible placed in the order they were sent.”

The preface also spells out for us the nature of the roman à clef. The story is set during the Fronde, the French civil war that took place in the middle of the Franco-Spanish War of 1635 – 1659. The Fronde had two phases, and it is the second, the Fronde des nobles, with which we are concerned: “The time of the rebellion of the true Protestant Huguenot in Paris, under the conduct of the Prince of Condé (whom we will call Cesario)…”

The preface then goes on to give us a sketch of one of Cesario’s followers, a young man given the sobriquet Philander, who achieved notoriety by eloping with Sylvia, the sister of his wife, Myrtilla. In this version of events, Myrtilla is not only Cesario’s mistress, but was in love with him at the time she married Philander, which she did purely for interest’s sake. We hear of Philander’s pursuit of Sylvia, their affair, its discovery and their flight. We hear also that, as a consequence of his involvement with Cesario, Philander was one of the rebels defeated by the king’s forces; that he was imprisoned, but escaped; and that he then fled the country in Sylvia’s company.

It is unlikely that anyone in England reading this far could fail to guess the true identities of the major players of this tale. Whether they believed that the letters were actually real is debatable, but either way, they could be certain that a scandalous story was to follow.

A word about the names here. All of the characters are given pastoral pseudonyms in place of their “real” (that is, fictional) names, which was a common practice at the time in both literature and literary circles, a hangover from the days of the classical romance. These days we might be inclined to snicker at our anti-hero’s name – what, we’re supposed to be surprised that someone called “Philander” behaves like this? – but in fact, it is because of the success of this tale that the word “philander” took on its modern meaning, “to behave like Philander” eventually becoming simply “to philander”. And there is a second word in this book that Aphra Behn, not invented, but helped to entrench in common parlance; but we’ll deal with that later on.

When the story opens, Philander and Sylvia have admitted their feelings for one another, and immediately, we see how skilfully Aphra Behn builds upon her model, the Lettres Portugueses. In place of the single voice, here we have two; and the reader is invited to decode the language of each to get at the motives beyond. Sylvia is understandably torn, her passionate desire for Philander at odds with her fear of discovery, the thought of her lost honour, the shame that she would bring upon her parents should the affair be discovered, and above all her consciousness that she would be betraying her own sister. Meanwhile, despite the increasing extravagence of Philander’s language, the reader is able to see what the inexperienced Sylvia cannot, the selfish single-mindedness of his passion. She vacillates, thinking of others; he relentlessly pursues his aim.

To contemporary readers, the language of Love Letters is frequently overripe and hard to swallow; but it is important to realise that it is an accurate reflection of its time, when verbal flamboyance was commonly used to disguise brutal reality, like putting a clean dress on a dirty body. So it is throughout this book, as it becomes dismayingly apparent that for all the pleading and the protestation, all the agonies and desperation, all the languishing and dying, there is nothing in this story that we might in modern usage call “love”; not a moment when it is ever about anything other than sex. And the more apparent that becomes, the less willing are the characters to admit it – and the more excessive becomes the language.

Furthermore, increasingly over the length of the story, there is a tendency to parallel the relations between man and woman with warfare: by the end, the phrase “the battle of the sexes” is barely even a metaphor. This is, undoubtedly, Aphra Behn’s own view of her world; and to a large extent the subsequent volumes of Love Letters are questioning whether in such a world it is ever possible that the woman might be victorious, or whether she must inevitably be conquered…and then ransacked and abandoned. Anything other than defeat for one party or the other is, however, quite out the question: it is destroy or be destroyed.

Language, then, is not so much a means of communication as on one hand a weapon, on the other a form of disguise. Philander, clearly, has already learned the power of the word before he turns his batteries upon Sylvia. In their exchange of letters, her language grows more and more like his, more heated, more exaggerated: words become a substitute for sex. Increasingly, Sylvia uses in her letters the words “brother” and “sister”, ostensibly to kill their mutual passion, in fact because the forbidden nature of the relationship adds to its fire. Consciously or unconsciously, Sylvia has absorbed Philander’s lesson: how to use language to conceal an ugly truth.

Having established the nature of her characters’ passion, it is then time for Aphra Behn to move onto politics. We must remember that the story’s “rebellion of the Hugenots” is a cover for the events leading up to the Rye House Plot. As in reality, Philander and Sylvia are on opposite sides of the political divide. Sylvia’s family is loyal to the throne, while Philander has thrown in his lot with Cesario in his intended revolt against his father, the king. It is Sylvia who broaches the subject in their letters, first uttering the standard female grievance that while she thinks of nothing but him, she knows that for all his protestations, Philander often has things other than love on his mind. From an early warning about the danger to his life if he persists in following Cesario, she initiates a frank political debate, demanding to know on what grounds the rebels are taking action?—

“What is it, oh my charming brother then, that you set up for? Is it glory? Oh mistaken, lovely youth, that glory is but a glittering light, that flashes for a moment, and then disappears; it is a false bravery, that will bring an eternal blemish upon your honest fame and house; render your honourable name hated, detested and abominable in story to after ages; a traitor!”

Like Aphra Behn, Sylvia is a royalist; and like Behn again, there is an oddly sexual aspect to her devotion to her monarch: “I swear to you, Philander, I never approach his sacred person, but my heart beats, my blood runs cold about me, and my eyes overflow with tears of joy, while an awful confusion seizes me all over.”

However, Behn’s insistence upon the physical glamour of the Stuarts is far easier to take than her subsequent attempt forcibly to remodel Charles to fit the royalist vision of what a divinely-annointed monarch should be. In the literature of the time, we’ve seen any number of hilariously inaccurate descriptions of Charles by Tory writers, and Aphra Behn’s is among the most extreme; and when you consider that she probably had James as much as Charles in her mind when she wrote it, it becomes even more ludicrous:

“What has the King, our good, our gracious monarch, done to Philander?… But all his life has been one continued miracle; all good, all gracious, calm and merciful: and this good, this god-like King… His eyes have something so fierce, so majestic, commanding, and yet so good and merciful, as would soften rebellion itself into repenting loyalty… Oh! what pity it is, unhappy young man, thy education was not near the King!”

Sylvia here launches into a lengthy reproof of Philander’s intentions, and indeed his political principles – or the lack thereof. She should have heeded her own words: from the Tory perspective, as a man was in his politics, so he was in his personal life. Philander’s willingness to betray his king should have been a clear warning to Sylvia that he was not otherwise to be trusted. Sylvia’s speech here hits all the major heads of Tory attacks upon the Whigs: that their protests against “absolutism” and their claim to be acting “for the good of the people” were nothing more than a shoddy excuse for their own selfish actions; that their motives were pure self-interest and the hope of self-aggrandisement; that to oppose the will of the king was to be guilty of treason.

In all this, Philander is the very model of a Whig, particularly in his willingness to align himself with Cesario in spite of being cuckolded by him: to a Whig, we understand, lost honour is a minor consideration beside the opportunity for personal advancement. Philander admits openly that he has no respect for Cesario, and indeed, nothing but scorn for “the rabble”, in whose name he is supposed to be acting; and that it is entirely of himself that he is thinking. In doing so, he highlights one of the major debating points of the day: if it were possible to interfere with the natural line of succession (as the Whigs tried to do during the Exclusion Crisis); if it was acceptable to substitute one king for another, to, in effect, elect a king; if being king was not a matter of Divine Will, but of the strongest arm— When no man had a right to be king, then any man had the right to be king. It was the Tories’ worst nightmare.

And this is exactly Philander’s intention. He is merely using Cesario to jockey himself into a position of power. However dangerous the rebellion, however slim the chances of victory, if the rebels do prevail, why should not Philander be king?—“When three kingdoms shall lie unpossess’d…who knows but the chance may be mine… If the strongest sword must do it, (as that must do it) why not mine still? Why may not mine be that fortunate one? Cesario has no more right to it than Philander…”

Aphra Behn’s presentation of the Duke of Monmouth in this story, in the guise of Cesario, is marked by a venomous contempt for his ambition, his ingratitude to his father (and uncle) and above all his stupidity. At the same time, there is a certain disingenuity about Behn’s telling of the story, inasmuch as the religious division at the root of the crisis goes unacknowledged: the rebellion here is unmotivated by anything but greed. However, she is right in her assertion that while Monmouth supposedly had “followers” in his attempt to dislodge the Duke of York from the succession, what he really had were users: that he was never anything more to the Exclusionists than a means to an end.

Piling on the abuse, Behn first lets Sylvia loose upon the character of Cesario: here is Monmouth as seen by the Tories, his attraction for the Exclusionists laid bare—

“What is it bewitches you so? Is it his beauty? Then Philander has a greater title than Cesario; and not one other merit has he, since in piety, chastity, sobriety, charity and honour, he as little excels, as in gratitude, obedience and loyalty. What then, my dear Philander? Is it his weakness? Ah, there’s the argument you all propose, and think to govern so soft a king: but believe me, oh unhappy Philander! Nothing is more ungovernable than a fool; nothing more obstinate, wilful, conceited, and cunning…”

Not only does Philander not dispute this summation, he has a worse opinion of Cesario than Sylvia; and if this is how his “followers” feel, how must the rest of the country despise him?—

“They use him for a tool to work with, he being the only great man that wants sense enough to find out the cheat which they dare impose upon. Can any body of reason believe, if they had design’d him good, they would let him bare-fac’d have own’d a party so opposite to all laws of nature, religion, humanity, and common gratitude?… The world knows Cesario renders himself the worst of criminals by it, and has abandon’d an interest more glorious and easy than empire, to side with and aid people that never did, or ever can oblige him; and he is so dull as to imagine that for his sake, who never did us service or good, (unless cuckolding us be good) we should venture life and fame to pull down a true monarch, to set up his bastard over us.”

This political debate is merely an interlude, however, and soon Philander is ramping up his attempt to manoeuvre himself into Sylvia’s bed, using the fact that he has confided his secret, and therefore his life, to her as a measure of his love. At this point, Sylvia’s own desire is almost beyond restraint, except that she is haunted by the thought of her sister: “Myrtilla, my sister, and Philander’s wife? Oh God! that cruel thought will put me into ravings…”

These exclamations form part of one of the story’s most remarkable letters, in which Sylvia’s attempt to wean herself from her passion by harping on the marriage evolves into a tirade against the sister who is unable to appreciate what she has, which in turn becomes an erotic fantasy in which Sylvia dwells upon Philander’s physical perfections – only to conclude abruptly with the bitter realisation that Philander did not marry Myrtilla under compulsion, or for money or position, but for love.

Sylvia then tears up the letter…but Philander receives it anyway, delivered in pieces by Sylvia’s maid and confidante, Melinda, who brings also a warning that Syvia’s mother has begun to entertain suspicions, on account of her daughter’s behaviour. Nevertheless, another letter arrives for Philander: a letter of surrender—

“My heart beats still, and heaves with the sensible remains of the late dangerous tempest of my mind, and nothing can absolutely calm me but the approach of the all-powerful Philander… Bring me then that kind cessation, bring me my Philander, and set me above the thoughts of cares, frights, or any other thoughts but those of tender love; haste then, thou charming object of my eternal wishes, and of my new desires; haste to my arms, my eyes, my soul,—but oh, be wondrous careful there, do not betray the easy maid that trusts thee amidst all her sacred store…”

[To be continued…]

17/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 2)

“Whereas the Lady Henrietta Berkeley has been absent from her Fathers house since the 20th of August last past, and is not yet known where she is, nor whether she is alive or dead; These are to give notice, That whoever shall find her, so that she may be brought back to her Father, the Earl of Berkeley, they shall have 200 Pounds Reward. She is a young Lady of a fair Complexion, fair Haired, full Breasted, and indifferent tall.”
— The London Gazette, September, 1682

The scandal that forms the basis of Aphra Behn’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister was the illicit affair, and subsequent elopement, of Ford, Lord Grey of Werke, and the Lady Henrietta Berkeley, the younger sister of his wife. Although there were rumours about the affair, it became public knowledge when the above advertisement was placed, one of a series that ran across September and October of 1682.

Lord Grey was subsequently arrested and stood trial, along with various servant-accomplices, charged that they, “…did conspire the ruin and utter destruction of the lady Henrietta Berkeley, daughter of the right honourable George earl of Berkeley…and solicited her to commit whoredom and adultery with my lord Grey, who was before married to the lady Mary, another daughter of the earl of Berkeley, and sister to the lady Henrietta…” The already sensational trial took another turn when Henrietta, though as a woman and a minor not permitted to speak in court, nevertheless stood up and declared herself to be the wife of one William Turner and therefore no longer subject to her father’s authority. In spite of this, Grey was found guilty, only for the whole business then to mysteriously fade away – at least for him: the servants charged weren’t so fortunate. It is supposed that Grey bought his way out of trouble; something he had quite a talent for, as we shall see.

Although this scandal on its own merits would have been more than enough for a novelist like Aphra Behn to build on, the trial was neither the beginning nor the end of the business. For one thing, the matter fell squarely into the political division of the day: the Berkeleys were committed Tories, while Grey was not only a prominent Whig, but an open supporter of the Duke of Monmouth in his campaign to replace the Duke of York as heir to the throne.

(Oh, fun fact! – remember my mentioning that the only piece of legislation that Parliament managed to pass during the period of the Exclusion Crisis was the Habeus Corpus Act? Well, it turns out they wouldn’t have passed that, either, except that Lord Grey pulled off the 1679 equivalent of stuffing the ballot box. I’m not quite clear about how he managed it, but there were certainly shenanigans.)

Grey had first come to prominence during Monmouth’s “tour of the provinces”, the journey around England intended to build his popularity with the people. If the Earl of Shaftesbury was managing the business from London, as it was claimed, then Grey was the puppetmaster on the spot. However, after Charles prevented the passing of the Exclusion Bill by proroguing the Oxford Parliament in March, 1681, both Grey and Monmouth temporarily withdrew from the public eye, at least in the political sense.

The relationship between the two men was, and would remain, a peculiar one. For one thing, it was common gossip that Grey’s wife, Lady Mary, was Monmouth’s mistress. Opinions differed on the surrounding circumstances. Some held that Grey had pimped his wife to Monmouth in order to give himself a hold over the facile would-be king; others that he was genuinely deceived and, upon discovery, genuinely outraged. A third party suggested that there was no affair, and that Grey himself had started the rumours in order to give himself an excuse to banish his wife to the country, as he did late in 1680. Whatever the truth of the matter, what is indisputable is that the absence from the scene of Lady Mary paved the way for Grey’s pursuit and seduction of her seventeen-year-old sister, Henrietta.

While there’s little doubt that Aphra Behn was deliberately increasing the titilation quotient of her work by using the word “sister” in its title, she was within her rights to do so: under 17th-century law, the relationship between Grey and Henrietta was incestuous. The affair was carried on for a year before Lady Henrietta’s family discovered it. Her outraged parents then removed her from Berkeley House in London to Durdans, their country house near Epsom, but this attempt to keep her away from Grey failed. In another delightfully scandalising touch, one night Henrietta managed to escape from the house and elope with Grey, dressed only – or so it is said – in her nightgown.

The two returned to London and hid themselves in lodgings. If the marriage between William Turner and Henrietta was real (and there is some question about that), it must have happened around this time. Either way, it is believed that Turner was a manservant of Grey’s, who allowed himself to be used to facilitate his master’s affair. And in the wake of Henrietta’s disappearance, Lord Berkeley began advertising for his daughter in the London newspapers.

(The remark about Henrietta’s breasts disappeared from subsequent ads, by the way.)

The events that followed the trial are obscure, but when Lord Grey came into public view again, it was as a party to the Rye House Plot. After the Oxford Parliament, the Exclusionists essentially fell apart. The next two years were comparatively quiet, but political violence erupted again in the middle of 1683, when – or so it is alleged – a Whig / republican plot to assassinate both Charles and James was uncovered. The brothers were visiting Newmarket for the races and were supposed to return to London, passing Rye House, from where the attack was to be launched, on the 1st of April. However, a fire at Newmarket sent them home early, and so the plot was thwarted. As with all such plots, which don’t actually happen, it’s impossible to know the full truth. Some historians believe in the reality of the plot, while others contend that it was an invention, or at least a beat-up, by Charles and James to rid themselves of their remaining Whig opponents. Quite probably, it was “a little from Column A, a little from Column B”.

In any event, there was a round of arrests and convictions. Monmouth, who was implicated, got away to the United Provinces (we assume he was allowed to go), but William, Lord Russell, Sir Thomas Armstrong and Algernon Sidney were executed, while the Earl of Essex committed suicide in the Tower of London. Another of the condemned, our old friend Lord Grey, managed to escape from the Tower before his execution: an event involving guards who just happened to fall asleep or be looking the other way, and a boat that just happened to be on the Thames; Grey’s extremely deep pockets strike again. However it was contrived, when Grey fled to the Continent in July of 1683, he took Henrietta Berkeley with him.

It is not at all clear what happened to Henrietta after that, although at some point she seems to have crept back to her family, to live out her life in obscurity and disgrace. Curiously, when she died in 1710, it was declared that she was never married. Possibly the Turner story was a lie to help protect Grey, or possibly there was an annulment. Or possibly the Berkeleys simply preferred to pretend that the whole thing never happened.

In complete contrast to his former lover, Lord Grey returned spectacularly to the public scene during the long-anticipated and ultimately futile Monmouth Rebellion, which finally took place in June, 1685, four months after James succeeded his brother. It was an abysmal failure, an outcome that many blame upon the incompetence, or the cowardice, or even the treachery of Grey, who was put in charge of Monmouth’s cavalry. Monmouth was convicted and executed as a traitor, along with many of his followers, after the “Bloody Assizes” of Judge George Jeffreys. During the autumn of 1685, some 200 people were executed for their involvement in the Rebellion, and a further 800 transported for life.

Lord Grey, however, was not among them…

[To be continued…]

13/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 1)

“The play had no other Misfortune but that of coming out for a Womans: had it been owned by a Man, though the most Dull Unthinking Rascally Scribler in Town, it had been a most admirable Play. Nor does it’s loss of Fame with the Ladies do it much hurt, though they ought to have had good Nature and justice enough to have attributed all its faults to the authours unhappiness, who is forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.”
— Aphra Behn (1678)

“There are strong marks of Genius in all this lady’s works, but unhappily, there are some parts of them, very improper to be read by, or recommended to virtuous minds, and especially to youth. She wrote in an age, and to a court of licentious manners, and perhaps we ought to ascribe to those causes the loose turn of her stories. Let us do justice to her merits, and cast the veil of compassion over her faults.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)

“Mrs Behn wrote foully; and this for most of us, and very properly, is an end of the whole discussion.”
— William Henry Hudson (1867)

“We cannot but admire the courage of this lonely woman who, poor and friendless, was the first in England to turn to the pen for her livelihood, and not only won herself bread but no mean position in the world of her day and English literature of all time.”
— Montague Summers (1915)

“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn…for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
— Virginia Woolf (1928)

“Without a knowledge of Aphra Behn’s work our conception of English literary history is incomplete. Her place can’t be filled by anyone else. There remains quite simply a gap and, without Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister in particular, we are led to suppose that the eighteenth-century novel sprang unmothered from the thigh of Robinson Crusoe.”
— Maureen Duffy (1986)

There are, of course, any number of quotes I could have used to illustrate the changing fortunes of Aphra Behn, but these for one reason or another caught my eye. Clara Reeve encapsulates for us the growing divide between Behn’s writing and her reputation, while speaking late in the 19th century, William Henry Hudson gives us Behn at her nadir, her writing so “foul” neither it nor she warrants discussion. It was Montague Summers via his study of Restoration drama who began to rehabilitate Behn’s reputation, but although he edited and reissued her works, he seems like Virginia Woolf to have been as interested in the woman as in the writer. Indeed, for Woolf, all that really mattered was Behn’s position as a professional female writer: what she wrote was far less important than the fact that she wrote at all.

Half a century later, Behn had become a powerful symbol for feminist academia, a rebuttal to the entrenched male-centric view of the evolution of the novel, with its mulish insistence upon Defoe or Richardson or Fielding as “the” father of the novel. (Maureen Duffy’s choice of the tart term “unmothered” speaks for itself.) Today, so charged is the idea of Aphra Behn that there is occasionally some difficulty in shifting the mounds of baggage to one side, in order look at her writing upon its own merits.

I stress, “shift”, not “dispose of”: we certainly do not want to lose sight of the historical importance of Aphra Behn, whose self-carved career was quite unique, and whose belated foray into fiction would prove enormously influential in the direction taken by subsequent English prose writers. Although Behn had few if any role models, she would be an inspiration for two succeeding generations of female writers, poets and novelists in particular; until the tightening morals of the 17th century made Behn and her followers personae non gratae; and even then, when she herself became almost literally unmentionable, Behn’s writing continued to exert its influence.

I don’t intend here to get into Aphra Behn’s biography: that job’s been done, and done well. Janet Todd’s comprehensive work was preceded by Maureen Duffy’s breakthrough 1977 study, The Passionate Shepherdess, and by Angeline Goreau’s Reconstructing Aphra, from 1980; while numerous other works discuss her life and works. Instead, we’ll be confining ourselves to the historical, social and literary forces that prompted Behn, a poet by choice and a playwright by need, to begin writing fiction.

When Charles II reopened the London theatres at the beginning of the Restoration, two dramatic companies divided the audience and the spoils: the King’s Company, which produced predominantly established plays; and the Duke’s company, which focused upon new works. Naturally, it was to the latter that Aphra Behn attached herself in the late 1660s. Her first play staged was The Forc’d Marriage, produced in 1670. From there, Behn had regular successes for over a decade – mixed with a few failures – while she also gained a reputation as a poet and expanded her circle of literary and artistic acquaintances. At the same time, the personal attacks upon her gained force and virulence, and Behn expended much energy in (largely justifiable) complaints that she was condemned for “immorality” for material that, had it been written by a man, would have passed without comment. Throughout her writing career, there was an ambivalence about Aphra Behn’s attitude to her own professional standing that showed itself in her need to prove that she could “mix it with the boys”, while remaining acutely sensitive to, and desiring recognition for, her position as a female writer.

Behn’s social origins are murky at best, but it does not seem that she could have been more than middle-class by birth, and was very likely less. Throughout her personal and professional life she exhibited royalist / Tory tendencies combined with a healthy contempt for “the mob”: a stance that probably reflected her simultaneous effort to distance herself from an unsatisfactory past while, in effect, writing herself into a new existence. It was certainly also part of an attempt to get a foot in the door at court. Behn never did quite manage this, although she became a friend and collaborator of the Earl of Rochester, and was much admired by John Dryden. She had no particular religious feeling; her adherence to monarchy had nothing “divine” about it; she believed, rather, in the desirability of a central authority. However, as with many royalists of the time, we imagine, Behn’s theories about monarchy had to survive the reality of Charles; particularly in the wake of her unhappy experiences as an agent for his government.

Behn’s most successful play was The Rover, first produced in 1677. It became a favourite not just with London audiences in general, but at court – and particularly with the Duke of York, who met with Behn after seeing it and praised her work. This encounter seems to have left Behn quite star-struck, and it is from this time that we can date her increased willingness to take a political stance in her writing. Two of Behn’s more successful plays from this period, 1681’s The Roundheads and 1682’s The City Heiress, support royalism and the legitimate monarchy, which as so often in the Tory works of this time is presented as ludicrously virtuous, while suggesting that interference with natural succession and other Whiggish notions will inevitably lead to disaster. The former went so far as to equate the Exclusionists with the rebels of the 1640s.

It is important to realise, however, that over the course of the turbulent decade following the “revelation” of the Popish Plot, and in particular through the events of the Exclusion Crisis, Behn’s primary loyalty was not to Charles, but to James. This explains her increasing hostility towards the Duke of Monmouth – which, however James might have felt about it, Charles certainly did not appreciate. Behn’s new political persona saw her invited to write the prologue and epilogue for a play called Romulus And Hersilia, and in the wake of the dismissal of the charges of high treason against the Earl of Shaftesbury, she let rip. Her prologue attacked the Whigs in general, while her epilogue focused on Monmouth. As a consequence, both Behn and the actress speaking the lines were arrested and asked to “show cause”. There were no further consequences, however, so presumably Charles meant nothing more than to give Behn a good dissuasive scare. It didn’t entirely work, as we shall see, but it did make her change her tactics.

This turn of events is often given as the reason Aphra Behn as good as stopped writing plays, but in fact the political situation that gave Behn her last dramatic successes was about to overwhelm her career. Audiences that had flocked to the theatre in the early Restoration to celebrate the depoliciticising of entertainment began to dwindle in the late 1670s as religious and political division again became rife. During this period, the King’s Company was also mismanaged; and in 1682, a decision was made to merge the King’s and the Duke’s into the single United Company, with the former management of the Duke’s in charge. Despite this, probably for pragmatic reasons, the new company adopted the King’s philosophy of staging predominantly classic and established plays. Very few new plays were commissioned, and a great many playwrights, Aphra Behn among them, were left with little prospect of being able to earn their living in that direction. As a fulltime professional, Behn had little choice but to look for alternative sources of revenue. The poetry she had always favoured was not very remunerative, and nor were translations, but she worked at both of these. Another possibility was fiction.

Behn was a reader as well as a writer, of European texts as well as English. She was familiar with the market and knew that, in fiction as in drama, sex sold. The apolitical plays she staged prior to The Roundheads had failed: people wanted political material. Yet political material could be dangerous, even if favouring the “right” side, as Behn had learned the hard way.

Behn’s literary solution to her dilemma was nothing short of a stroke of genius, one which drew heavily upon existing forms and texts yet created an identity all of its own. Published letters were an established genre even before the success of The Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, which were translated into English in 1678. Whether real or fictional, these impassioned letters, focused upon the emotions of the writer to the exclusion of all else, were a literary revelation. Behn took her cue from them but went them one better, using letters to show both sides of an illicit love affair. In doing so she created a new form of fiction, the epistolary novel, which would dominate English prose writing throughout the 18th century.

But Behn didn’t stop there. Melded with the story told via letters, which provided the reader with plenty of sex, is a healthy dose of politics. In this, Behn resorted to the use of another established literary form, the roman à clef. In the 16th and much of the 17th century, this “disguised” form of writing was a means of examining great issues: of analysing, and criticising, nations, governments, peoples, mores; but as the 17th century wore on this form became increasingly a means of expressing a particular political viewpoint, or criticising a particular person – or exploiting a particular scandal – and of doing so more or less with impunity.

While many of these romans à clef strike us today as ludicrously transparent, as well as outrageous in content, there was apparently some kind of arrangement in place, at least a tacit one, that protected the booksellers and authors responsible for these works from legal repercussions, as long as all concerned adhered to the convention of pretending they were talking about “somewhere else”. During the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis in particular, as we have seen, in this way the most incredible accusations were thrown variously at the king and his court (and his brother), and at the enemies of the king and his court (and his brother), apparently without consequence.

And again, Aphra Behn took note. She was nervous about her new venture – which would finally be published anonymously, just in case – and the prospect of being somehow “protected” by employing a particular form of writing was naturally attractive. Behn’s work would eventually stretch to three volumes, of which only the first is in the classic epistolary form; but in its entirety, it is a roman à clef, the re-telling of a story that had scandalised the whole of England through the years 1682 – 1863, and which (no doubt to Behn’s eventual delight) would erupt again in 1685. As material for her first published attempt at prose, the story must have seemed to Behn almost too good to be true, offering illicit – and illegal – sex, outrageous doings amongst the aristocracy, and the opportunity to launch a scathing attack upon the enemies of the Stuart monarchy. Early in 1684, Aphra Behn published the first part of what is now widely regarded as the first true “modern” novel, Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister.

[To be continued…]

18/12/2010

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (Parts 3&4)

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (2003)  Director:  Joe Wright  Screenplay:  Adrian Hodges  Starring: Rufus Sewell, Rupert Graves, Martin Freeman, Charlie Creed-Miles, Shirley Henderson, Helen McCrory, Christian Coulson, Ian McDiarmid, Shaun Dingwall, Emma Pierson, Mélanie Thierry, David Bradley, Eddie Marsan, Diana Rigg, Tabitha Wady, Anne-Marie Duff, Thierry Perkins-Lyautey, Jochum ten Haaf, Alice Patten, Cyrille Thouvenin, Robert Kavanah, Simon Woods, Robert East, Dorian Lough, Rob Jarvis

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Part 3 of Charles II: The Power & The Passion opens in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, with the anti-Catholic rumblings that formed a background for much of the earlier drama coming to the fore: while there are some who see the fire as a judgement upon Charles and his court, far more are lending an ear to the story of the “Papist” who was seen running through Pudding Lane with a torch. As a weary Charles comments later, when people have lost everything, it’s no use trying to tell them it was just an accident. It is the end of any hope for religious tolerance, and he knows it.

In Versailles, Charles’s mother is dying. Her last words to her daughter, Henrietta Anne (Ann-Marie Duff), known as “Minette”, are of Charles: that he must be made to see how Louis XIV (Thierry Perkins-Lyautey) can help him, and that he must die a Catholic. Afterwards, Minette is approached by Louis, who is also her brother-in-law. He, too, speaks of Charles, in bitter reference to the Triple Alliance, England’s pact with Sweden and Holland. Minette argues that the pact was Parliament’s doing, not Charles’s, and Louis responds by ordering her to England, with an offer of his friendship – a very generous friendship – should he convert to Catholicism.

There are only the vaguest allusions here, mostly through the mutterings of the eternally sneering Buckingham, to the rumours that Minette and Louis were lovers (some claim he was the real father of her eldest child), but it does make her husband, the Duc D’Orleans (Cyrille Thouvenin), known as “Monsieur”, not only openly homosexual but violently abusive.

Back in England, Charles has things other than religion on his mind. Well, not his mind, exactly: a young actress called Nell Gwynn (Emma Pierson) has caught his attention, which is just too bad for Barbara Villiers, whose star begins to fade as Nell’s rises, and whose latest baby is disclaimed by its putative father. Barbara’s spiralling debauchery and extravagance have Charles’s ministers and followers baying for her blood, although her final eviction does not come until Charles catches her in bed with a young John Churchill (Simon Woods). The series chooses a slightly more dignified encounter with Charles for the future Duke of Marlborough than history usually allows, which generally has him either hiding from his king in a cupboard, or jumping out of the window to avoid him. This version has him admitting he took money from an “insistent” Barbara in exchange for his services. (Come to think of it, is that more dignified?)

Meanwhile, Nell is going from strength to strength: Charles buys her a house, Sir Peter Lely paints her portrait, and as she lolls about in the company of Charles, Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester (Robert Cavanah), the latter composes his famous (and much re-written) epigram on Charles, who gives his equally famous retort.

In the face of Charles’s general intransigence, Parliament begins to tighten the financial screws on him, meaning that when Minette makes her visit, she finds her brother in a receptive mood. Charles’s ministers look on apprehensively, interpreting this “family visit”, this “visit for her health”, quite correctly. When the terms of Louis’ cash offer to Charles are made known – to recognise his sovereignty over the Netherlands, to support him against the Dutch, to declare war against the Dutch themselves, as soon as an excuse is found – the ministers, Shaftesbury in particular, are outraged, demanding to know what Parliament will think of Charles taking French money to rule alone?

Charles responds coolly that Parliament will know nothing of the situation, because no-one in the room will speak of it – and what’s more, each of his ministers will sign his name to the treaty. Slowly, with shame and reluctance, they do. It is Shaftesbury who hesitates the longest, but in the end even he does as he is told. Buckingham, meanwhile, is disturbed and angry at the realisation that Charles trusted the Earl of Danby (Shaun Dingwall) with his decision, rather than himself, and begins his drift towards opposition.

But Shaftesbury & Co. don’t know the half of it. In a private meeting, Charles and Minette discuss the other part of Louis’ offer: enough money to rule without Parliament, in exchange for Charles’s conversion to Catholicism. In one of his ugliest manoeuvres, Charles does not sign the secret treaty himself, but maintains plausible deniability by compelling his two Catholic ministers, Lord Arlington (Robert East) and Sir Thomas Clifford (Dorian Lough) to sign it instead. It is only Minette who dares voice the truth of the situation: that Charles has no intention of converting, but every intention of taking Louis’ money.

Minette’s visit to England may not have been for her health, as contended, but she is ill – for the simple reason that she is being poisoned. She dies shortly after her return to France. Although the official verdict on Minette’s sudden death was peritonitis, there has always been a strong belief that she was murdered, probably by her husband. This is how her death is presented here, with perhaps just a faint underlying  implication that, having served her purpose in getting the treaties signed, she is then disposed of.

Minette’s lady-in-waiting during her visit to England was the young and beautiful Louise de Kéroualle (Mélanie Thierry), who instantly caught Charles’s eye – although with Minette guarding her, nothing happened. Now, Louise is recruited by Louis and given the mission of returning to England, where she will share Charles’s bed (share being the operative word, I guess) and act as Louis’s spy. The carrot dangled is the prospect of Catherine’s premature death and Charles’s subsequent need for a new queen…although as it turned out, Catherine not surprisingly outlived her profligate husband by some twenty years. Louise is soon revealed as a very clumsy spy, and Charles isn’t fooled for a moment – but what the hey, he sleeps with her anyway.

And the visitors just keep coming, as Charles affectionately embraces his nephew, William of Orange (Jochum ten Haaf). William himself is less kindly intentioned, accusing Charles openly of being either bribed or tricked by Louis, and on that basis declaring war on the Dutch. Assuming that William has come to make terms, Charles turns the other cheek to this, but he is soon disabused. Declaring that Holland has not surrendered and will not surrender, William adds that if England wants to offer terms, he will listen; that England cannot afford to fight indefinitely; that, after all, it is only a matter of time before Parliament cuts Charles’s supply. “When you are ready to talk sensibly, you will not find me unreasonable,” he says calmly. As William bows himself out, Charles gives a half-smile, obviously impressed with his nephew’s cojones – and, perhaps, his grasp of English politics.

The Duchess of York dies, and almost before her body is cold, James announces to Charles his intention of marrying Mary of Modena. Charles begins with dissuasion and progresses to forbidding the match – and is ignored. Here, for the first time, is mooted the possibility of James’s exclusion from the line of succession. A meeting of Charles and James with the ministry rapidly turns violent, with accusations of loyalty to the Pope on one hand provoking an explosion against the bastard usurper, Elizabeth from James. “The sooner the country should be brought back to the path of righteousness, the better for us all!”

And that, of course, is that. As Charles closes his eyes in silent pain and Buckingham drops his head into his hands, the battle-lines are drawn. The Protestant ministers insist upon the Test Act being enforced, the first consequence of which is the resignation of Arlington. Soon afterwards, Buckingham makes his way to a certain coffee-house, where he meets with Shaftesbury. Buckingham begins by protesting that he is Charles’s friend and loyal subject, but soon learns that it is he who has been betrayed, when Shaftesbury reveals what he has discovered about the second secret treaty: “One which bound King Charles to take the Catholic faith, in exchange for French gold and a Papist army to suppress his own people.” As Buckingham chews this over, Shaftesbury proposes two possible courses of action: Charles can divorce Catherine and re-marry; or if not, well, he already has a Protestant son…

So we stand at the conclusion of Part 3 of this series, which is, as we have seen, crammed with incident and quite compelling. Part 4, however, is—well, actually, I can tell you exactly what’s wrong with Part 4. This series came to me as a two-disc set, with the first three episodes on Disc 1. When I put in Disc 2, I expected there to be another three episodes. There was one.

It’s only a personal irony, of course, but given that it was the events of the following years, the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, that led me to watch this series in the first place, I couldn’t help feeling rather let down that it was exactly those events, of all things, that it chose to skimp on. Even the bloodbath brought on by the Popish Plot is skimped! And yes, I suppose the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis did consist predominantly of a great deal of arguing in the House of Commons, and of pamphlets in the bookstores, rather than anything “dramatic” – but really, this whole episode feels rushed and unsatisfying, particularly in the way in which it concludes.

The other striking thing about this episode is that, having kept a fair balance to this point, from here it increasingly asks the viewer to sympathise with Charles. It emphasises his growing isolation, both emotionally and politically (irony of ironies, he really only has Catherine to rely on – in both capacities), and the ultimate futility of his determination to hold on to the crown and the succession. On the back of his various mistakes, stupidities and duplicities, the sudden emergence towards the end of an all-wise and all-seeing Charles (even though it is only for the sake of dramatic convenience) is particularly discomforting. So too is the tone of the final parliamentary scene, when Charles confronts his enemies in full monarchical regalia: Ooh, look, isn’t he handsome in his robes and crown? He must be right after all!

We open in the earliest days of the Popish Plot, with Christopher Kirkby (Rob Jarvis) bringing the “found” written proof of the conspiracy to Lord Danby, and accusing the Jesuits in general, and Sir George Wakeman, Catherine’s physician, in particular, of plotting to assassinate Charles. He tells Danby that he got the papers from one Israel Tonge, who in turn received them from a man called Titus Oates (Eddie Marsan). These two are summoned to Whitehall, where Oates insists that the Pope and Louis XIV are behind the conspiracy, and that Catherine and James are both privy to it. This is enough to bring Charles, who has been listening secretly to the interrogation, into the room, where he demands the names of the Catholic conspirators. After only a slight hesitation, Oates names all of England’s most prominent Catholic noblemen, along with Sir George Wakeman and Edward Coleman, Mary of Modena’s secretary.

Having listened to all this with an unconcealed scepticism amounting almost to amusement, Charles fastens upon Oates’ insistence that he originally became aware of the plot by overhearing details of it within the queen’s household during one of his visits to the palace on business. Reasoning that Oates must, therefore, know his way around Whitehall very well, Charles asks him to lead the way to the spot where he overheard the plot – a test that ends with an embarrassing encounter with the Royal Water Closet. For Charles, this says it all.

Now, oddly enough, we get the one point in this episode in which it is profoundly unjust to Charles, and where I am prepared to defend him. We can criticise him for many, many things, but he certainly did not just turn his back upon events at this juncture and leave Parliament to “deal with it”, and expect it to be done – while he, mind you, went off to the races! On the contrary, Charles tried repeatedly to expose the plot as false and prevent the rush of events, but was out-manoeuvred and finally backed into a corner by a Parliament that had no intention of letting such an opportunity slip, no matter how much innocent blood might be spilled as a result. Here, we get a crude shorthand of these events when Buckingham beats the real story out of Oates – that the plot was his revenge upon the Catholics for his expulsion from a Jesuit seminary under accusations of attempted sodomy – and then warns him to keep his mouth shut, or else. Before long, “the truth” is all over England.

Strangely, the extent of the Catholic massacre is very much played down here, with only the executions of Edward Coleman and, eventually, that of  Viscount Stafford, one of the Catholic nobles, foregrounded. These events prompt Charles to send a seething and mistrustful James into exile, so that “the people’s grievance” may be kept out of their sight for a while. Meanwhile, Shaftesbury’s health is failing, and with his time running out, he ups the ante and begins taking dangerous action against Charles.

First, he and Buckingham lure Monmouth into their own plots with the prospect of the crown. (These scenes make it very clear that Monmouth’s attraction for Parliament lie as much in his vanity and weakness, which make him easy to manipulate, as in his Protestantism.) Shaftesbury then reveals to Parliament copies of letters written by Lord Danby, which make reference to the secret treaty with France, and introduces the Exclusion Bill. All this leads to another scene of Charles averting his eyes from his most loyal supporter, in this case Danby, and then throwing him to the wolves…

…but he does save Danby’s life, when Shaftesbury and Buckingham are clamouring for his execution; although it is evident that Danby’s head is their bargaining chip, which they intend to exchange for James’s exclusion from the succession. Thwarted in this, the pair arrange instead for the conviction and condemning of Lord Stafford – an act that requires Charles either to acquiesce to the judicial murder of a loyal and innocent man, or to spare him and damn himself with the English people. Charles is fully aware that if he pardons Stafford, he will give Parliament exactly the weapon it wants. He tries to make Stafford “confess”, arguing that he can then save his life, but Stafford won’t buy his life with a false oath. Still Charles hesitates. It is Catherine who convinces him that he must proceed, or he will lose everything he has fought for – and proceed he does…

In the middle of all this, the series pauses to give us Nell Gwynn’s moment of transcendant glory when, having been taken for that of “that Papist whore”, meaning Louise de Kéroualle, her coach is violently attacked by the London mob: “Good people, you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore!”

Meanwhile, Monmouth has been on a “publicity tour”, travelling the country and gaining the affection and support of the people – which doesn’t exactly endear him to his father. It is here that the series begins to give us a Charles who is mysteriously prescient about future events, in this case telling Monmouth that he will never be king, and that if he kicks against this fate, he will die a traitor’s death. He then sends Monmouth, too, into exile, telling him on no account to return until summoned. But come back he does, on Shaftesbury’s command…

And here we jump abruptly to the dissolution of Parliament at Oxford, Charles’s supreme moment of individual defiance, and the final defeat of the Exclusionists. In the wake of this, a bewildered Monmouth is sent into permanent exile, a cynical Buckingham simply shrugs and withdraws from politics, while for Shaftesbury, his own mortality staring him in the face, it is the end of everything.

And then we jump again to the series’ uncomfortably awkward final scenes, which has all of the remaining characters (those not in exile) passing their time together, while the suddenly all-knowing Charles predicts each and every one of the various events that will transpire over the next four or five years. Frankly, I find the potted-history approach used here rather irritating. We could have had the Rye House Plot instead of this. Anyway, the series proper concludes when Charles suffers a stroke, but staggers out to his father’s portrait and appeals desperately for his approval before collapsing. In the wake of Charles’s death, we get still more potted history, with each character reciting his or her own fate, which in the case of William of Orange means ascending to the English throne – but it is Charles in voiceover who gets the final word. These closing moments carry far more of a sense of what England lost with the passing of Charles, than of what it gained.

08/12/2010

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (Parts 1&2)

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (2003)  Director:  Joe Wright  Screenplay:  Adrian Hodges  Starring: Rufus Sewell, Rupert Graves, Martin Freeman, Charlie Creed-Miles, Shirley Henderson, Helen McCrory, Christian Coulson, Ian McDiarmid, Shaun Dingwall, Emma Pierson, David Bradley, Eddie Marsan, Diana Rigg, Tabitha Wady, Anne-Marie Duff, Thierry Perkins-Lyautey, Jochum ten Haaf, Alice Patten

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

You know, when I set out on this course of reading I knew very little about the Restoration, and I find myself surprised at the amount of knowledge I’ve managed to absorb just by trying to make head or tail of the literature of the day; enough, as it turns out, so that I can spot when the makers of Charles II: The Power & The Passion start tampering with the facts.

This mini-series has been broadcast here at least three times, although for some reason I never watched it properly before. (Probably because I had no interest in the Restoration, ha-ha.) I did catch bits and pieces of it, though, which from what I can gather puts me in more or less the same boat as the American viewers of this series, who got a significantly cut-down version of a drama that is, in my opinion, far too short to start with.

However, the good news here is that, whatever the series’ faults, its production values of are truly excellent. (Finding Kate Harwood’s name in the opening credits was immediately reassuring.) The casting of Rufus Sewell as Charles was a bit of a no-brainer, I guess, but he’s really very good, capturing the mixture of character traits that drove so much of the era’s upheaval. We see Charles’s obsession with his father’s death, and his consequent determination not just to hold the crown, but to revive its divine attribution – and sacrifice anything or anyone that might interfere with his goal.

It is on this point alone that Charles is steadfast, however: in all else he is facile in a way that is occasionally admirable, and frequently dismaying. We see a spirit of compromise and tolerance, particularly in matters of religion, completely out of step with the times; we see also the unfortunate habit of being swayed by just the wrong person at just the wrong time; and above all we see that he is, when it comes to the ladies, a complete putz.

Part 1 opens with the execution of Charles I, which turns out to be the younger Charles’s nightmare (complete with sitting bolt upright in bed – tsk). We find Charles and his entourage in Antwerp – for simplicity’s sake, I imagine, they keep the peripatetic prince fairly stationary – where he is advised and supported by Sir Edward Hyde (Ian McDiarmid), and passes his time in company with his lifelong friend, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (Rupert Graves). The latter is bored and frustrated with his position – and Charles’s poverty – and begins to counsel compromise with Cromwell, to Charles’s outrage. At length, Buckingham reveals that he has been invited back to England under promise of forgiveness by Cromwell and with the offer of an advantageous marriage. He accepts, initiating a growing rift between himself and Charles that will ultimately find Buckingham amongst the leaders of Charles’s opponents.

We also have a first glimpse of religious discord, ominously enough within Charles’s own family, as he and his mother, the coldly Catholic widow Henrietta Maria (Diana Rigg), clash over the religion of Charles’s younger brothers: Charles is adament that it is only as the Protestant king of a Protestant country that he can regain his father’s throne; that Parliament will accept nothing else. The queen counters that he would not need Parliament if, as a Catholic king, he joined with Louis XIV, and shared his bounty and his armies. She also recommends the re-Catholicisation of England by the simple expedient of burning all the Protestants at the stake.

Charles soon finds some consolation for his various woes, however, when he encounters one Lady Palmer – aka Barbara Villiers (Helen McCrory), the first and longest-lasting of many, many, many royal mistresses, who would bear Charles five (acknowledged) children, but whose increasing promiscuity and debauchery would eventually see her supplanted and evicted from Whitehall. This series also posits an ongoing affair between Barbara and Buckingham, who was – I think – her half-cousin, and has her seducing the young Duke of Monmouth (Christian Coulson), and encouraging his ambitions. It is via Barbara that we here learn that Buckingham, far from finding the expected pardon in England, has been consigned to the Tower of London by Cromwell.

In the wake of Cromwell’s death and the resignation of Richard Cromwell, the question of the restoration is broached. Her we are introduced to the Earl of Shaftesbury (Martin Freeman), who reveals Charles’s intentions to Parliament – including, typically, a promise to reopen the theatres and allow music and dancing. It also includes an offer of amnesty for those who opposed him; and offer that does not (and did not) extend to those who signed Charles I’s death warrant. The beginning of Charles’s reign is marked by the bloody execution of the condemned (and oh, how these historical dramas love to dwell upon the horror of hanging, drawing and quartering!); although here it is implied that, sickening of the slaughter midway through the process, Charles pardoned those still alive.

Under Barbara’s influence, Buckingham is restored to favour. Barbara further exhibits her power over Charles after the birth of their first child when, as Monmouth looks on in startled admiration, she throws a monumental tantrum from which she emerges triumphant as Countess of Castlemaine. Mistresses and bastards aside, Parliament is already considering the question of Charles’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza (Shirley Henderson), whose dowry outweighs her Catholicism, at least to some. We get the first scuffle here between Charles and Shaftesbury, as the latter protests Catherine’s religion. Charles voices his determination to pursue a policy of religious tolerance: perhaps the noblest of all his intentions and, alas, like most noble intentions at the time, one which came to nothing.

I’m going to make a concerted effort here not to append the word “unfortunate” to every mention of Catherine, but I’m not sure how far I’ll succeed – particularly not in the face of her unkind reception by a snickering royal household, provoked by her appearance, her lack of English, and her outrageous request for a cup of tea; nor in that of the terror with which she prepares herself to submit to her wedding-night: a terror so evident that Charles suggests they postpone things for a while. There’s certainly a careless sort of kindness in this, but at the heart of it, he simply doesn’t find her attractive. The marriage remains unconsumated until a day when Charles, catching Catherine off-guard, dressed in boys’ clothes, her hair loose and romping with a dog, is caught off-guard himself.

There’s a certain detached humour in this series, particularly in the way it views Charles himself, and we get a taste of it here. Upon her arrival in England, it is discovered that Catherine speaks not a word of English; yet before much longer, having become only too well aware of Barbara Villiers, she is throwing the furniture at Charles and screaming about, “Your whore!” She learned that word quickly enough, of course. (“I suspect the queen still has some reservations over Lady Castlemaine’s appointment to the household,” deadpans Sir Edward.)

Meanwhile, James, Duke of York (Charlie Creed-Miles) and Buckingham are agitating for war against the Dutch, against the counsel of Sir Edward Hyde and Shaftesbury. Swayed by James’s muttered aside that the monetary spoils of war would free him from Parliament’s grip, Charles votes yes. Now, we’ve already considered just how bad an idea this was apropos of Henry Neville’s The Isle Of Pines. It also gives us one of the series’ odder glitches, at it places the Battle of Medway before the Great Fire.

Actually, James is having quite a run of outs, as it is now that his affair with Ann Hyde (Tabitha Wady) becomes public due to her pregnancy. The series takes the stance that James was essentially trapped into marriage, whereas there seems reasonable evidence that, despite urgings that no-one expected him to keep the promises he made before the Restoration, he insisted on going through with it. If so—well, no good deed goes unpunished, I guess: it would of course be a child of that marriage to whom James would eventually lose the throne. The script here takes the opposing view chiefly, I imagine, to give us an early scene of Charles refusing to interfere with the succession in any way: having Parliament dissolve James’s marriage and declare his child illegitimate would be setting far too dangerous a precedent.

Part 2 opens with the court gathered around a telescope, as Halley’s Comet passes. Charles tells Catherine that it means nothing, but Sir Edward comments quietly that many see it as a portent: “They foretell disasters and catastrophes before the year is out.” (Possibly this is why they moved Medway.) For Charles himself, the year certainly starts disastrously, with his pursuit of Lady Frances Stewart (Alice Patten) finishing – gasp! – unsuccessfully. (The sorely harrassed young woman had to find ways to hold him off until she could arrange to elope with her lover, the Duke of Richmond.) Elsewhere, the unfortunate Catherine (yeah, I know…), after three childless years, is taking the waters at Tunbridge Wells, which were believed to help with conception; while James is taking Catholic instruction…

For a time it seems that the former, at least, will end well, but Catherine’s joyfully announced pregnancy ends in miscarriage. In her misery, the unfortunate woman (sorry…) wanders into the royal nursery, staring in agonised bewilderment at Barbara and her illegitimate children. “What did you do…to warrant such a sign of Grace…?”

In the wake of Catherine’s miscarriage, Charles recalls James from sea, where he is leading the war against the Dutch in his position of Admiral of the Fleet. James is outraged, but Charles tells him flatly that with only his infant daughters to follow him, his life cannot be risked.

When it becomes apparent that Catherine will never bear a child, an odd evolution takes place in her position at court. In her despair, she becomes one of the few people who will speak the truth to Charles without hesitation; and over time she slowly transforms into Charles’s friend and counsellor – quite a ruthless counsellor at times – but one, perhaps the only one, he can trust completely. It is to Catherine he confides the secret of James’s conversion, predicting that it will bring everything to ruin. Interestingly, Charles’s attitude is entirely secular: he views James’s choice as selfish and ultimately destructive, but there is no hint he sees it as dividing him from his brother forever; as his mother would certainly see it. Whether this is a sign of Charles’s fundamental irreligiosity or his fundamental Catholicism is unclear.

As Part 2 moves towards its conclusion, we get two very strange choices from screenwriter Adrian Hodges – one of them, indeed, unforgiveable. With the outbreak of the Great Plague, a horrified and sickened Charles is taken through the streets of London by the magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (David Bradley). Berry Godfrey is best known as the magistrate who took Titus Oates’ deposition, his “final” version of the events of the Popish Plot – and who was murdered soon afterwards. To many, the murder was proof positive of the truth of Oates’ accusations – while some say it was Oates and his people who had the magistrate murdered for just that reason. When the character of Sir Edmund turned up at this point in the series, I assumed it was to prepare for these later events – but he never appears again. Odd.

The other mystifying plot-thread concerns debate over Charles’s supposed marriage to Lucy Walter and Monmouth’s legitimacy. Barbara has been pushing this bandwagon, as well as trying to convince Charles to divorce Catherine – mostly because of personal emnity, we imagine; while she and Buckingham are both busy poisoning Charles’s mind against Sir Edward Hyde, who has too much influence for their liking. The question of the Test Act has already created a rift between Charles and Sir Edward, and in the wake of the Battle of Medway, Hyde’s enemies see their chance, with Buckingham calling for his impeachment. Buckingham’s outspokenness sees him back in the Tower for a time, but he emerges triumphant. For a time it seems that Hyde’s enemies will bring about his death, but Charles commutes the sentence: the most loyal of his counsellors is instead sent into permanent exile. Here we have the first of a long line of moments in which Charles averts his eyes from a friend, murmuring that someone must take the blame…

Meanwhile, according to the script, it was not Lucy Walter at all who owned a black box containing proof of her marriage to Charles, but Charles himself! Repeatedly, Charles denies his marriage and declares Monmouth illegitimate; but a silent scene has him producing a hidden black box, him taking a paper from it and destroying it…

This is an absolutely bewildering touch – particularly in light of the series’ depiction of Charles’s stance on the succession. Think about it: what he’s doing here is destroying the proof that he has a legitimate Protestant heir: an heir that would have solved all his problems; an heir that would have solved EVERYONE’S problems. The hell – !?

Okay, I guess they just wanted to work the famous black box into it somehow… And they as good as admit the tampering, too: we never actually see what the paper is. And really, perhaps it was just the symbolism of it they were after; because, as Charles drops that mysterious paper into the fire, we cut from those flames to the Great Fire of London…